Bizarre farce, corporate heist, democratic dysfunction - call it what you will, but despite six years in development the facts attempting to explain just how the Ruataniwha water storage scheme will work and who must shoulder the cost if it doesn't are only just beginning to emerge.

And, as sick of the entire mess as we might be, all Hawke's Bay ratepayers will be sicker once they understand what those facts are - because your wallets, dear readers, and your town and country assets, are on the line.

Yes, I mean mortgaging the Port of Napier. That's already a done deal. I have heard that it was apparently a done deal back in 2009 when, after talks with Alan Dick, the Minister of Finance had the clear impression port monies would pay for the RWSS.

And yes, I mean the extensive and expensive irrigation systems farmers taking water from the scheme will install, because the whole shebang could implode if it can't be made - every year of its working life - to meet the environmental and other conditions stipulated by the Board of Inquiry.


Currently, despite what some might have you believe, the ability of the scheme to meet those conditions is very uncertain, in part because the regional council has not instigated the independent expert panel it was required to set up to review aspects of the scheme as it progressed - such as the (revised) dam design.

But almost buried in this week's council agenda was an issue that, to me, speaks to the nub of the problem: that what could be a completely taxpayer/ratepayer funded half-billion dollar scheme has no direct public governance and, if it's set up as envisaged, never will have.

See, the council's "arm's-length" investment company, HBRIC, may be the driver but it won't be the scheme's owner. That role will be taken by another company, Ruataniwha Water Limited Partnership, the make-up of which is currently unknown.

Where it gets interesting is the RWLP will "manage" the farm environmental management plans of the properties signed up to take water. Using "approved" consultants, RWLP will help design these FEMPs to "best practice" for individual water users - plus have the delegated power to approve them. Cosy, eh?

So although they'll be adapting generic templates sourced from council, without duplicating the work no-one but RWLP will know whether the FEMPs approved really will meet the conditions for things like nutrient runoff - and "best practice" and the Board of Inquiry conditions aren't necessarily the same.

If - or when - things go wrong, a minefield of insurance and cross-liability issues will define who can sue whom. But guess who will wind up paying, in the end? Yep. You, the ratepayers.

Given our "environmental watchdog" did its best to not only reject tighter rules but have existing rules relaxed to allow more pollution into the Tukituki river system, how can we to trust a set-up where council abrogates its responsibilities by devolving them to a company it does not control?

Regardless of what you think of the RWSS, this sleight-of-power is not what we elect councillors to do. We expect them to make informed, impartial, accountable decisions on our behalf, not bleed off their mandate so some second-hand vehicle can run a few years on borrowed Port fuel before breaking down spectacularly and leaving us with the wrecker's bill.


I simply remind readers this scheme is backed by one CHB councillor with a pecuniary interest, three from Napier City, and one from Wairoa. They're not taking any personal risks; those, they're happy to pass on to you.

- Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet. All opinions expressed here are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.