Residents of a Mid North town are demanding to have their views heard before a water storage reservoir is built nearby.
The recently established Te Tai Tokerau Water Trust has been granted $8.5 million and loaned $60m by the Provincial Growth Fund to develop a network of water reservoirs across the Mid North, to head off future droughts and allow grazing land to be converted to higher-value horticulture.
So far one dam — Matawii, near Ngāwhā — has been consented under fast-tracked Covid-19 recovery legislation with the next project out of the blocks likely to be Te Ruaotehauhau near Ōhaeawai, about 10km east of Kaikohe.
News that a large reservoir was planned upstream of their township came as a surprise to many Ohaeawai residents, prompting the Ōhaeawai-Taiamai Residents Association to organise public meetings last month and again this week.
Association secretary Michael Drayton said locals weren't necessarily against the dam but they felt they hadn't been consulted.
''People's biggest concern was that the plan suddenly appeared so they're just hearing about it at the last minute. That's partly because it's been fast-tracked but when there's a lack of information people fill in the gaps.''
Other concerns raised by residents included whether more horticulture would lead to greater use of sprays, and whether there was a risk of the dam failing and flooding the town.
''It's not that we don't want it but everyone is saying, how about you ask us first?''
Another resident, Roy Shackleton, said locals were alarmed that a large project was being rushed through without consultation.
''Everyone here's a bit shocked by the pace and scale of it. We just want to slow the process down so some thought and analysis can go into it.''
If Te Ruaotehauhau goes ahead as planned it will be created on what is now mostly pasture between SH1, Remuera Settlement Rd and Hariru Rd, just northwest of Ōhaeawai. It would cover about 30ha and contain 1.4 million cubic metres of water.
By comparison, Matawii — where work is due to start next month — will cover 18ha and store 750,000cu m.
The trust's project manager, Andrew Carvell, said a resource consent application for Te Ruaotehauhau had been lodged with the Northland Regional Council and all landowners who could be affected in the unlikely event of a dam burst had been written to.
The trust had also applied for fast-tracked consent under Covid-19 recovery legislation and was waiting to find out which process would apply.
Carvell said soil in the area was highly versatile but its economic potential couldn't be tapped without a reliable water supply.
Possible uses included avocados, kiwifruit, market gardens and heirloom crops. There was some potato growing in the area already.
Carvell said the dam would be built to the highest design standards. It would withstand an earthquake of magnitude 6.5, although Northland was not in a quake zone, and a downpour of 700mm in six hours. By comparison the record-breaking deluge that hit Kaikohe in July was 120mm in six hours.
Carvell said residents had raised concerns about land use changes.
''At the moment it's rolling pasture with some small-scale horticulture but if water was available that would probably change — so some of the opposition is not to the infrastructure itself but to landscape changes,'' he said.
Another storage lake could be built just north of Te Ahu Ahu Rd, near Waimate North.
All the planned reservoirs are dwarfed by nearby Lake Ōmāpere which covers 1200ha.
There are long-term plans to include the iwi-owned lake in the water supply network but much has to be done first to improve water quality. The lake level was lowered significantly in the early 20th century and it is now subject to regular toxic algal blooms.
A series of reservoirs is also planned on the drought-prone Pouto Peninsula in the Kaipara.
Orchard spray top concern
Possible increased use of horticultural sprays was one of the top concerns raised at a meeting in Ohaeawai about plans for a new irrigation dam.
About 80 people turned out for Tuesday evening's public meeting called by the Ohaeawai-Taiamai Residents Association at the local rugby clubrooms.
Ōhaeawai resident Peter Olsen said he wasn't against the dam but was concerned about orchard sprays and changes to the landscape if irrigation led to a horticulture boom.
Grand claims had been made about the number of orchard jobs that would be created but many fruit-pickers were from overseas, he said.
''There's a lack of benefit for the locals. We'll carry the cost of it but not the benefit.''
Another local, however, urged the town not to pass up the opportunity.
Pauline Carter said she had been involved when Kerikeri's two storage dams were built 40 years ago and had seen the benefits.
''It can only be an asset to the area,'' she said.
Hone Tiatoa, of Lake Ōmāpere Trust, said the water scheme offered ''huge potential'' for employment, especially for nearby Kaikohe.
The answer to concerns about sprays was to delineate an area for organic farming.
The wider scheme also offered a chance to finally address water quality problems in Lake Omāpere.
Some residents said kiwifruit orchards would spoil their views and sprays would contaminate the streams they drew water from.
Others wanted to know who would own the dams, whether locals could own the scheme, who would be able to use the water, how long the dam would take to fill and what effect it would have on streams further down the catchment.
Roy Shackleton said the community's top priority should be to ask Te Tai Tokerau Water Trust to withdraw its application for a fast-track consent and go through the normal resource consent process, so everyone affected could have a say.
''To me that's the most pressing issue we have to deal with,'' he said.
Questions raised at Tuesday's meeting will be put to the trust at the next public meeting.