Thanks to our world class land-based industries Hawke's Bay is a prosperous place.

Why will it not remain so? But those industries are undergoing a profound shift in their relevant importance. This change has been fundamental and sustained.

Historically Hawke's Bay agriculture has been centred on sheep, producing meat and the golden fleece, complemented by beef cattle and grain crops. Dairying was in pockets and horticulture/viticulture clustered around Hastings. There was little irrigation.

Today our sheep flock is half what it was 30 years ago, and still falling. Early casualties here were the two giant sheep and cattle processing plants, costing 4000 Hawke's Bay workers their jobs. Sheep farming still remains important, but its place in our fortunes is greatly diminished.


Actual production on sheep farms has not fallen - generally it has increased. What has happened is that other land uses have forced their frontiers. Nationally this has been mainly dairying, though not to a great extent in Hawke's Bay - we have just 3 per cent of the nation's dairy herd, and intensive landuse shouldered dairying off the Heretaunga Plains decades ago.

What landuses have expanded here is forestry on the hills, while on the plains and downlands it has been horticulture/viticulture, and process and export crops, predominantly irrigated to insure quality and quantity of production.

This growth of irrigation has been enabled by new technologies and driven by commercial imperative. Today these downland industries are increasingly underpinning our economy and providing employment, both skilled and unskilled, from the field through to the supermarket or wharf.

The continued growth of these industries looks assured. Except ...

Except for the availability of water. Water is the very lifeblood of the Heretaunga Plains. One just needs to look at the broad picture from above in a typical Hawke's Bay summer. It's a veritable oasis.

The available water, of course, is determined by precipitation in the catchment. But the uptake is determined by public policy through the regional council. That availability is going to shrink as minimum flow levels in our rivers are increased in response to public demand. The Tukituki is merely the first.

So it looks as if the tap will be turned off, or at least turned down, on our expanding and vital primary industries.

God can't be counted on to provide us with more water - we even give us less. The only way to increase water availability is through winter capture. This can be done on-farm, and, to a very limited degree, now is. It depends on the right geology, usually not the case. And it, like the Ruataniwha dam, is a costly exercise per unit of water.

But is storage the only option? What of the fresh water that exits our rivers? Are there possibilities here for the lowlands? Can this fresh water be returned under pressure to supplement the aquifer?

The public can use it on the way down, the growers on the way back. Only the great Pacific misses out. This, of course, is not an option for Central Hawke's Bay. Only the projected - and endlessly disputed - dam can allow for the replication of the bountiful Heretaunga on the Ruataniwha.

What is the regional council's vision as to the medium to long-term future of our land-based industries, and the ability to accommodate their sustained and profound transformation? Do they have a vision? Or an appreciation of history?

During the election campaign the now chairman belaboured the suitably alarmist claim - it was in the midst of the gastro crisis and figures were being pointed at intensive cattle farming in the upper Tukituki - that the dam would result in 9000 hectares of dairying in its footprint.

This can't be proved or disproved, but it is in complete defiance of the history outlined above. It looks to be nothing more than empty rhetoric.

The issue of the dam is the council's call. But councillors are obliged to objectively consider, and dispassionately debate, the implications for the long-term growth of our most promising industries.

There are obviously downsides to the dam, though to my mind, overstated. But there are downsides to it not proceeding, and they're there for the visionary to see.

Most councillors have been elected to stop stuff.

Where is the imagination, the ideas, the vision? Someone said that without a vision the people perish. That's an overstatement. But without one the people may languish.

Ewan McGregor is a former deputy chairman of the Hawke's Bay Regional Council.