And a change in government and new National Party MPs in nearly all Hawke’s Bay electorates could help Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay navigate the key legal hurdle that is stopping progress on the project.
Five years ago, it was a National MP in Nelson who set the precedent the group is banking on to help bring the dam to fruition. James Pocock reports.
One of Hawke’s Bay’s new electorate MPs could be the key to opening the floodgates on a proposal for the region’s largest dam.
But both National’s Mike Butterick and Catherine Wedd aren’t making any commitments to helping.
The Makaroro Storage Scheme is the brainchild of Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay, a private group attempting to revive the failed Ruataniwha Dam project using the consents they purchased from Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.
The group says the dam would store 100 million cubic metres of water and ensure a minimum environmental flow runs through the river to preserve its ecosystem even during the dry season.
However, they need the support of an MP for the project to navigate the 2017 Supreme Court ruling that found the Minister of Conservation acted illegally by trying to make 22ha of Ruahine Forest Park available for exchange to Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Company Ltd (HBRIC) for the $330-million dam project.
Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay director Hugh Ritchie said the group’s approach had fundamentally not changed since the election and a precedent had already been set five years earlier with the Waimea Dam in Tasman.
It was an MP from the National Party, Nelson MP Nick Smith, who introduced a Local Member’s bill to allow access to where the Waimea Dam was to be built.
“There is a different group of MPs now but from what I am led to believe from our conversations to date they are certainly open to that conversation,” Ritchie said.
He said that the environmental flow of the river would still drop below the minimum of 5200 litres per second even if the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council cut back on the existing allocation as suggested by some opponents of the dam.
“Anyone that is arguing against it - come up with a better alternative to safeguard the environmental flow and things like that.”
A “modest” prediction in the Hawke’s Bay Regional Water Assessment, released earlier this year by Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, modelled a shortfall of nearly 25 million cubic metres of water in Hawke’s Bay by 2040, increasing to 33 million by 2060.
Mike Butterick, MP for Wairarapa, and Catherine Wedd, MP for Tukituki, both said they had been approached by Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay during their election campaigns, but they had not spoken again since being elected.
Both said they were big advocates for water storage in Hawke’s Bay, but neither wanted to commit to sponsoring a local bill at this stage.
“In terms of commenting specifically on the old Ruataniwha Dam site, I am not in a position to comment on that,” Butterick said.
Butterick said water security was key to navigating increasing volatility in climate, such as extended dry periods, and key to protecting the region’s economy
“Water is the key to adapting and having resilience to those climate challenges.
“Water is jobs, water is job security. Water allows you to diversify what you grow as well.”
Wedd said Hawke’s Bay was a food-producing region and relied heavily on the security of water to grow its economy
“Agriculture and horticulture drive this region. We need to support water storage so we can provide jobs and opportunity,” Wedd said.
Agriculture Minister Todd McClay said in a statement that he had not been approached by Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay since being appointed in the role last week.
“Water allocations and storage is something that has the potential to deliver better economic performance in our regions, and when done properly also leads to better environmental outcome,” McClay said.
“This can be achieved both by smaller on-farm irrigation and storage systems as well as larger catchment-wide storage.”
It was revealed in a regional council meeting in August that the decision on whether to wipe the debt would be left with staff rather than councillors, due to regional council practice for decisions on remissions.
Dr Trevor Le Lievre, spokesman for residents group Wise Water Use, said he believed “clawing back” the existing allocation to intensive farms using groundwater, rather than a large dam, would be enough to ensure the river had an environmental flow and the region had a water surplus again.
“The groundwater and the rivers are inextricably linked,” Le Lievre said.
He said there could be scope to implement a smaller, off-river, “catchment-scale” dam as a “last resort” if after reducing the existing consents one was still required.
James Pocock joined Hawke’s Bay Today in 2021 and writes breaking news and features, with a focus on environment, local government and post-cyclone issues in the region. He has a keen interest in finding the bigger picture in research and making it more accessible to audiences. He lives in Napier. firstname.lastname@example.org