''The biggest thing to happen in the North in 40 years'' — that's how a plan to build a series of water storage dams was described as the first stage got under way yesterday.
The idea of building a network of reservoirs across the Mid North was given fresh impetus last summer when Kaikohe ran out of water and then by the Covid pandemic, which prompted the government to inject billions into economic recovery projects.
The first dam, Matawii, will be built east of Kaikohe, covering about 18ha and have a capacity of 750,000cu m.
Up to three more dams could follow in the Mid North, along with a second water storage scheme on a similar scale on Kaipara's Poutu Peninsula.
Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones — in possibly his last public appearance, if political polling is to be believed — was given the job of using an digger to break the soil for an access road to the dam site yesterday.
The idea is that Matawii will be filled during winter when rainfall is plentiful, and the water used for horticulture, for an industrial park being developed by council-owned company Far North Holdings, and as a backup water supply for Kaikohe in times of drought.
The project is overseen by the newly formed Te Tai Tokerau Water Trust, which has received $68m from the Provincial Growth Fund for the first stage. Of that $8.5m is a grant and the rest is a loan.
Far North Mayor John Carter said the reservoirs would allow Kaikohe to replicate the economic success of Kerikeri, which had been driven by the construction of two storage dams in the 1980s under the Muldoon government's Think Big scheme.
The land around Kaikohe was more fertile than that around Kerikeri so, with a secure water supply, its potential was ''enormous''.
Jones said he was proud Northland was being endowed with infrastructure denied to the region since the construction of the Kerikeri Irrigation System.
''It's beyond politics. It's for our mokopuna, and all Northlanders who want a higher level of economic output.''
Trustee Dover Samuels used the chance to give MP Matt King a ribbing, saying he was tired of hearing his National Party colleagues say Northland was ''getting all the pork'' - a reference to claims of pork-barrelling.
''Northlanders like their pork and we're finally getting our fair share. In the nine years before this all we got was the squeal. Jones has brought home the bacon.''
Samuels said the long-term aim was to integrate Lake Ōmāpere, by far the biggest body of water in Northland, into the scheme.
Representatives of local hapū Ngāti Rangi and the Lake Ōmāpere Trust also took part in the ground-breaking ceremony.
Ngāti Rangi representative Liliana Clarke said the hapū would make sure it had a voice in all projects under way in the area, and maintained a partnership with Te Tai Tokerau Water Trust and Far North Holdings.
''For us, having mana whenua for this site, that's important — not only for our tupuna but also for future generations.''
Matawii is expected to be pushed through under fast-tracked Covid-19 recovery legislation.
That means the resource consent would be granted by an expert panel, assisted by the Environmental Protection Authority, instead of going through the Northland Regional Council and the long-winded Resource Management Act process.
The trust will find out on October 27 if a fast-track consent will be issued.
If so, work on the dam itself could start in December with the aim of having it completed by May in time to catch winter rain. Water would be available for use from late next year.
Trustee Murray McCully said the Mid North and Kaipara schemes combined would allow an extra 7000ha of horticultural development, boost economic activity by $150m a year and create up to 880 new jobs.