Ongaonga farmer Alistair Setter says both rural and urban areas of CHB will wear the effects of further water consents. He chats to Mark Story.

Some say there's no proof of a casual correlation between private residents' current water shortages and increased volumes taken by big irrigators. What's your stance on this?
HBRC monitor bores show declines in water levels of over 20 metres in the last 20 years. The declines have been noticeable every year and have accelerated in the last five years. Irrigation on the Ruataniwha Plains started 20 years ago. On top of this there are many stories of farmers and residents needing to lower their bores and install submersible pumps. There are also many concerning stories of declines in river, stream and spring flow – extending out east of Waipawa and Waipukurau. The decommissioning of the water races had an effect, although, that was over 15 years ago.

It's been aired that said big irrigators should be subsiding the costs for residents who need to fork out for deeper bores. Do you favour this?
I believe that if the irrigators are causing an issue to the environment or to other farmers and residents they need to pay for the solution to that issue. However, irrigators rely on the regional council to manage the water resource and get it right for everyone. At the moment the critical aspect to get right is to stabilise the aquifer and not allow any further degradation. Currently, all the science concludes that the aquifer will stabilise at the current water usage / consent levels. Let's all hope that this is the case. The key right now is that no new irrigation rights should be granted. Tranche 2 represents a 53 per cent increase in aquifer consent, which is an outright threat to stabilising the aquifer and surface water in Central Hawke's Bay.

Is it primarily the dairying sector that needs to lift its game?
Dairy farming or any particular type of farming is not really the issue. I certainly believe that water needs to be valued and used responsibly – whatever the industry. Some of the dairy farms in Central Hawke's Bay are best in class and have had major positive contributions to our community.

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Farming and CHB go hand-in-glove. Are we witnessing the beginnings of a rift between the district's residential versus farming communities?
Water is a critical issue for everyone in Central Hawke's Bay. Farmers need water for stock and their own households. Any threat to water security for this purpose represents a massive risk, both socially and economically. Farmers who use water for irrigators currently have the risks as well. Surface water users are facing new more restrictive minimum flows and the deep aquifer users do not want their bores to lose any performance.
The Tranche 2 water consents, if they were to go ahead, would take 650 litres per second out of the river, meaning that surface water users will be in ban earlier and for longer – even if the river is augmented. The townships use a surface-take consent so this will mean that water bans for town residents will come in earlier and for longer as well. It also means that there is an outright risk to springs and water bores for farms, including farms a long way out from the Ruataniwha Plains. To this end, I believe that the community, both farmers and town residents, are completely united in opposing the Tranche 2 water consent application.

You've asked regional council to step up. What options does it have?
The HBRC really need to get ahead of this issue. The first step is to acknowledge that things have changed due to irrigation. Essentially, there has been a 20 year experiment with the introduction of irrigation and the results are coming in now. The HBRC did have a good plan to store water in the dam project, but that failed. Now they need to look at a Plan B. I do believe that they are on the right track with increasing the resources dedicated to remodelling the aquifer and finding solutions to stabilise the surface water that we all depend on.
I do believe however, that the HBRC needs to step up and take a leadership position on Tranche 2. It has been five years since the Board of Inquiry allowed the wishes of a special interest group to introduce the water allocation. A lot has changed since then. The Board of Inquiry gave the HBRC discretionary rights to grant or not grant the consent applications. I hope they listen to the united voice of Central Hawke's Bay, listen to their own science and make a bold statement discouraging the few Tranche 2 applicants from going any further. I also believe that the HBRC should indicate that Tranche 2 is wrong to be in Plan Change 6 and that at the next amendment opportunity it will be removed.