In 2017, after a loss in the Supreme Court and $20 million of sunk costs shouldered by Hawke’s Bay ratepayers, the Ruataniwha dam proposal was declared dead.

But, to misquote Mark Twain, the dam’s death has been greatly exaggerated.

A group of businessmen bought the project’s intellectual property, including consents, from the council for $100,000, saying it would give the community time to revive the plan.

Last year, the project was rebranded the Makaroro Storage Scheme, and promoted by a separate group called Tukituki Water Security Project, headed by former trade envoy Mike Petersen.

A $300,000 “re-scoping” study, mostly paid for by consumer-owned power company Centralines, claimed the project now prioritises the environment.

It would be a salve for climate change concerns and community needs, the report by an investment banking firm said. Commercial and private users – who would pay hundreds of millions of dollars to build the scheme – would be last in the queue.

Newsroom can reveal the latest twist: Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay, the company holding the dam consents, applied last month to extend the “lapse date” of consents to 2030.

An independent decision-maker is being appointed to consider the request on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, and Central Hawke’s Bay and Hastings District Councils.

Regional Council consent manager Malcolm Miller says, in an emailed statement, that the consents are due to expire in 2024, and an extension decision is scheduled to be made early next month.

There’s no requirement to notify anyone, he says, but an assessment must be done to see who is potentially adversely affected.

“The process is not the normal consent application process. The consents exist and are able to be exercised if the issue of land ownership is resolved.

“Essentially they count as part of the existing environment. It is just the matter of the extension of the lapse date that is open for consideration.”

Environmental lobby group Forest & Bird believes the public should have a say.

“The Ruataniwha proposal was pushed ahead by the [regional] council of the time despite community opposition, and at a substantial cost – around $20 million – to ratepayers,” freshwater advocate Tom Kay says.

“Those ratepayers, as concerned citizens of the region and as people impacted by this decision, should be given the opportunity to finally have their voices heard.”

Petersen, the former trade envoy who heads Tukituki Water Security’s steering group, says extending the life of the consents will allow time to work with mana whenua.

(Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay and Tukituki Water Security are separate entitities, Petersen says. “Water Holdings HB has not funded or been a part of the rescoping work for the Tukituki Water Security Project.”)

He reiterates the project’s change in focus.

“The perception of the Ruataniwha was that it was an irrigation project to enrich a few landowners. This is now, actually, a strategically important project, particularly when it comes to climate change, and the state of the Tukituki catchment from an environmental perspective, first and foremost.”

That’s countered by freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy, a senior researcher at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He says dams have far more numerous environmental impacts than benefits.

“The two main claims made by dam proponents are that the irrigation schemes will be good for rivers, and they will mitigate climate change impacts. Both these claims are totally erroneous, actually worse than false – the opposite is the truth.”

Kay, of Forest & Bird adds: “The problem that we have in Hawke’s Bay is a massive over-allocation of water.”

“We have to realise the folly of large-scale dams,” freshwater ecologist Mike Joy says. Photo: Supplied

The Tukituki River, one of Hawke’s Bay’s largest, ranges more than 100 kilometres from the Ruahine Ranges to the sea, through an area heavily modified for farming, particularly of sheep and beef.

The catchment doesn’t get a lot of rain, and is drought-prone in summer, with low flows leading to problems with algae and slime.

Plan Change 6 to the Hawke’s Bay regional plan, which increases minimum flows and prolongs irrigation bans, was an attempt to address water scarcity and farm pollution.

Surface and groundwater takes are over-allocated, the regional council says, and the catchment has water quality “challenges”, particularly with dissolved inorganic nitrogen levels which, in places, breach Plan Change 6 “limits”.

The plan change was developed in concert with the dam proposal, which, given the council’s investment, would have given it leverage to change land use on the Ruataniwha Plains.

A huge investment was preferred over the big stick of regulation. The caveat was there was no guarantee of success.

The equation was, effectively, big capital investment, from public and private sources, would equal improved irrigation security, higher farm earnings, fewer environmental problems, and financial returns to the public through the regional council.

While the Tukituki Water Security Project’s narrative focuses on environmental flows and climate change, the project remains in the same place, with the same lake footprint, with many of the same proposed benefits.

But the Ruataniwha project’s proponents have clearly learnt from the Waimea dam being built near Nelson. Backers of that scheme talked up community and environmental benefits, amidst escalating costs, and gained permission to flood 9.7 hectares of conservation land through a local bill passed in Parliament.

Indeed, last year’s re-scoping study for the planned Ruataniwha dam, to be built across the Makaroro River, makes explicit a local bill is the best way to overcome difficulties with flooding 22 hectares of public conservation land in the Ruahine Forest Park.

“This land issue requires a legislative resolution similar to the Waimea Dam land, and Tangata Whenua sponsorship/leadership on this issue is critical,” said the Lewis Tucker and Company report.

“Local Members of Parliament have been consulted.”

Petersen tells Newsroom: “It seems to us to be the most obvious pathway.”

This confirms a fear uttered in 2018, that a local bill would revive the Ruataniwha proposal.

Newsroom approached a trio of Labour MPs – Anna Lorck of Tukituki, Kieran McAnulty of Wairarapa, and Meka Whaitiri of Ikaroa-Rāwhiti. Lorck and McAnulty noted there’s no formal proposal before them, while Whaitiri declares she’s not been asked to introduce a local bill.

“I’ve always expressed a willingness to keep an open mind to a renewed dam proposal,” says Lorck, who adds she gets regular updates on the project. “It makes sense to extend the consent process to enable good conversations with mana whenua to continue, and to ensure there is more time to do so because of the project’s significance to the region.”

Whaitiri confirmed she had a meeting about the dam proposal in March last year. In terms of supporting a local bill, her office says she hasn’t been fully briefed.

Her office says: “The minister’s interest is ensuring the community, particularly mana whenua, are on board to avoid what transpired the first time the dam was proposed.”

Kieran McAnulty, of Wairarapa, is waiting to hear more about the Ruataniwha dam project. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

McAnulty, who wants an abandoned Wairarapa dam project revived, says he hasn’t had a discussion about the project since becoming a Minister in June.

“We have given no indication of Government support. As a general rule I would consider sponsoring any local bill that was put forward by a local council within my electorate, however, whether it would be supported would depend on what is being proposed and the level of support from the local community, including mana whenua.”

The lapse date application says “engagement hui” at marae are underway. “Sufficient time is needed to ensure the engagement results in an enduring relationship – the estimate is that the process will take at least six months.”

(Newsroom emailed Liz Graham, chair of Heretaunga Tamatea Settlement Trust and Tukituki Water Security steering group member, Dr Roger Maaka, chair of Tamatea Taiwhenua, and Brian Morris, of Nga Marae me Nga Hapu o Tamatea, but didn’t hear back.)

Kay, of Forest & Bird, struggles to find the right word to describe how he thinks a local bill will undermine environmental bottom lines. He starts with problematic, and meanders to sad, undemocratic and irresponsible.

“The things we’ve agreed as society – that conservation land is important, and these species are important – and there are certain things that we don’t do in certain places. To be able to just undermine that is insane, and it’s not the solution.”

His bewilderment is understandable. Forest & Bird took the case to the Supreme Court, ruled on in 2017, which led to the Ruataniwha dam’s “death”.

Central to the decision was overturning the Department of Conservation’s landswap deal allowing the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council to acquire protected land in the Ruahine Forest Park.

The court said the decision by then Director-General Lou Sanson to revoke the land’s protected status was “fundamentally flawed”, and flew in the face of a draft report that said nationally significant values would be lost if the land was flooded.

Forest & Bird’s Kay calls it mismanagement or “dodgy processes”. Any local bill would, he thinks, trample on the Supreme Court decision.

Curiously, in the lapse date extension application by Water Holdings, the only mention of a legislative work-around to flood conservation land came from a Department of Conservation manager, Natasha Ryburn, the director of planning, permissions and land, after a meeting on May 18.

Her email to the company said: “If it is the intention that the proposal will use the same footprint as consented, a key outstanding issue relates to the Crown land administered by DoC. If the proposal raises the same issues posed by the Waimea water scheme, you may wish to consider the approach taken there, that is, a local bill.”

Ryburn tells Newsroom via email DoC has not indicated its stance on that approach. “Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay was already aware of the inundation easement approach required for the Waimea dam, and we thought our response should note the issue for the sake of transparency.”

Kay, of Forest & Bird, says: “If there’s anyone who needs to be careful about their position on this, it would be DoC – because it’s a piece of public conservation land that we’re going to lose here.”

“The problem with saying that it’s over-allocated is who you’re going to take the water off first, and how you’re going to fund that.”
– Mike Petersen

Petersen says the Supreme Court decision was about process, “not about the merits of whether a water storage facility would provide benefits and value for the region”.

So let’s consider those merits.

Tukituki Water Security says it’s adopting the hierarchy of Te Mana o Te Wai, from the national policy statement for freshwater management, putting the needs of the river first, then communities, then commercial uses.

“This is a completely different focus to what happened with the Ruataniwha,” Petersen says.

(The theory goes Plan Change 6 imposes strict environmental rules, and added flows will help dilute farm pollution. However, a regional council review of the dam proposal in 2017 said the plan change allows for increased nitrogen losses on many farms and it didn’t provide an “effective mechanism to control land use to meet the plan’s limits”.)

“This is now a strategic conversation that we need to have, because we are drying rapidly on the east coast of the North Island, particularly Hawke’s Bay.”

There are no other viable options, other than a dam across the Makaroro, he says.

“This is a water security project, it’s not an irrigation project.”

Jim Galloway, Federated Farmers’ Hawke’s Bay president, says water certainty for the Tukituki could give farmers the chance to diversify, and grow higher-value crops, like squash, cereals, or even blueberries.

“It’s got quite a reasonable range of soils and climates so that you can fix things and grow different things in different areas.”

Unsurprisingly, Forest & Bird’s Kay takes a different view. He says building a dam to provide for Te Mana o Te Wai is “absolutely ludicrous from an ecological perspective”, and distracts from the real problem – a massive over-allocation of water.

Figures provided by Hawke’s Bay Regional Council show eight of the top 10 consented water takes are for farming and five of those are dairy operations, making up more than half of the consented 28 million cubic metres. The fourth-biggest consent is for public water supply, while the 10th is for meat processor Silver Fern Farms.

“It’s really a problem with not the supply of water that we have in the region, but actually how we’re using that water and how we’ve allocated that water,” Kay says.

But, Petersen responds: “The problem with saying that it’s over-allocated is who you’re going to take the water off first, and how you’re going to fund that.”

That’s a fair question. However, one possible answer might be cheaper than building a massive dam.

Kay says massive, concrete infrastructure projects are old-school, and think-big, and nature-based solutions are the best way to combat climate change.

“We should be restoring the barren hillsides of Hawke’s Bay. We should be putting wetlands back in their place because they hold and store water.”

If the Ruataniwha dam was built, it’s expected to precipitate a rapid conversion from livestock farming to arable and permanent horticulture operations. Photo: Bernard Spragg/Flickr/Creative Commons

Another possible problem is science.

Joy, the freshwater ecologist, says a recent peer-reviewed scientific paper, published in a top freshwater journal, reviewed 165 scientific papers on dam impacts and found 92 percent of them reported declining or negative ecological measures as a result of dams.

He also points to a 2011 study on the Opuha Dam, which showed conclusive evidence of the scheme providing freshwater supply, but “the impact on other ecosystem services is uncertain, mixed or inconclusive”. They tend to artificially regulate river flows, and diminish natural floods.

Large-scale dams make farm businesses less resilient by making them dependent, Joy says. To afford the cost of irrigation water, properties are “inevitably” farmed more intensively, and in “most” cases converted to dairy farming.

(Petersen says a dam in central Hawke’s Bay will lead to an increase in permanent horticulture, seasonal cropping and high-value seeds production. “It won’t be dairy farming, I can guarantee it.”)

“In reality, the only way a dam could possibly mitigate climate change would be if you built a dam and did not change land-use or water-use and did not touch the water until the drought happened,” Joy says.

He adds: “We have to realise the folly of large-scale dams. The future for New Zealand agriculture is clean, healthy, sustainable farming that is our value-add. The way to grow food in the future is farm-scale water-retention and there are many proven ways to achieve this.”

Water, or the lack of it, is a big issue for Hawke’s Bay, and the Makaroro dam isn’t the only game in town.

Eight large farms in the Ruataniwha Basin, dubbed Tranche 2, have applied for consents to take 15 million cubic metres of water a year from deep wells.

“Not only have we reached the limits of what we can take on most waterways but climate change means there will be less water to go around in future.”
– Rick Barker, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council

Since Hawke’s Bay Regional Council sold its dam assets in 2018, it has considered managed aquifer recharge for Central Hawke’s Bay, and water storage for the Heretaunga to supply Hastings and Napier.

Yet the big dam plan for the Makaroro is still being accommodated. Central Hawke’s Bay’s proposed district plan, publicly notified last year, recognises the Mākāroro Gorge as an outstanding natural feature, with a specific clause mentioning the “regional social and economic significance of water storage” in the gorge.

Central Hawke’s Bay mayor Alex Walker sits on the Tukituki Water Security steering group.

Rick Barker, the regional council chair, says in a statement water security is a significant issue which has vexed the region for decades.

“Not only have we reached the limits of what we can take on most waterways but climate change means there will be less water to go around in future.”

If his council’s water interventions are viable and supported by the community, the council will need to pay for them. “Ultimately, council would need to pass those costs on, and extractive users on those waterways would likely be one of the first groups we would look at paying for it.”

Who will pay – it’s the age-old question.

Under the revived Ruataniwha scheme, the plan is for private and commercial parties to pay for the dam’s construction. “There’s a lot of green funds out there,” Petersen says, adding there’ll be an electricity generation component to the dam.

That would leave the public to pay for environmental flows, used to restore the health of the catchment, and for community use.

At the going rate of about 30 cents a cubic metre, and with roughly 20 million cubic metres required in a drought year, that’s $6 million in a single year, assuming costs stay the same.

So as the dam plan has pivoted to putting public interests first, the public, which would have been at least a part-owner in the last iteration, has become a customer, potentially exposed to the vagaries of the market.

Is that the best way of ensuring environmental considerations come first?

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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