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Should the regulator be the developer?

Should the regulator be the developer?

Thu, Nov 22 2012

Garth Eyles is a Hawke’s Bay land use consultant and former HB Regional Council land management manager. He is a respected conservationist, familiar first hand with the farming environment in Central Hawke’s Bay.

In fact, in 2009 Garth was awarded one of the Ministry for the Environment’s prestigious Green Ribbon Awards. His contribution to sound land management in New Zealand was cited as follows (in part):

“Garth’s life long commitment to caring for our soils places him at the forefront of land conservation and has made him one of New Zealand’s leading exponents on land use capability.

His commitment to sustainable land use has been very holistic and his contribution to the natural environment of Hawke’s Bay has covered developing farm plans that match land capability to use; encouraging planting of unstable slopes and gullies to prevent erosion; encouraging tillage methods that avoid wind erosion; and identifying remnant wetlands while encouraging restoration and enhancement.”

His article, following, regarding the HBRC’s proposed dam, and the Council’s questionable role in developing the proposal, was first published in the New Zealand Farmer’s Weekly on 5 November, 2012.

Should the regulator also be the developer?
By Garth Eyles

Last week the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) decided to go ahead with the largest single investment in the region’s history – the Makaroro irrigation dam. To be built at a cost of $280m with a further $200m needed for on-farm infrastructure this will see a major intensification of land use in the Ruataniwha plains, and later the Waipukurau and Otane areas with a total area of about 26,000ha becoming available for irrigation.

Initially the dam was promoted by the HBRC as the solution for poor water quality (high nitrate levels and algae pollution) in the Tukituki River and the revitalisation of the Ruataniwha aquifers (which are over-allocated and are being depleted). Now it has morphed into Hawke’s Bay’s golden goose, having the potential to raise productivity, employment and profitability for the whole region.

Consulting reports, costing about $5m, have provided the technical information and a consultation process through carefully selected stakeholder groups has been the pathway for information to be made available.

Irrigation is most likely to be via pivots. In the Ruataniwha Plains, the soils are formed from wind blown ashes and silt. They are poorly structured and easily break down to their primary particles with cultivation. In this state they are extremely susceptible to wind erosion. Hence the area has benefited from many years of shelter belt plantings with grants from the HBRC. Pivots will result in the removal of these shelter belts.

Recent climate change reports indicate wind levels are likely to increase by 10% on the eastern side of the North Island. It is probable these increases will be greater nearer the central ranges in areas such as the Ruataniwha Plains where there is already a serious wind problem. Removing shelter will wreak more damage to these fragile soils as well as possible damage to the pivots themselves.

Best management practice will be required by all farmers who make the conversion to irrigated farming whether it be for dairying or cropping. Winds are so strong and drying [that] irrigation will not negate the risk of wind erosion when cultivating. Minimum or zero tillage techniques will be needed for cropping but these are not suited to potato growing or crops requiring a fine tilth seed bed. Wind erosion is not the only concern as the wind velocities can cause serious damage to crops and out of season frosts in these inland areas can devastate crops, orchards or vineyards.

Environmental groups have been kept on the back foot by the late completion of environmental consultant reports and the extremely tight schedule kept by the HBRC, giving little time for independent assessments of the reports.

With a predicted 50-70% of the 26,000ha expected to change hands with irrigation, a huge social dislocation is likely to occur and this will need to be addressed.

What concerns me is how the farmers are not driving the project, rather it is the HBRC. I would like to see some assurances that the community on the Ruataniwha Plains actually wants the dam and is committed to using the water.

The dam might result in a more secure supply of water, but at what cost to the community?

This HBRC initiated development project heralds a new approach to regional development, one in which the regional council takes the initiative, identifies a potential development and organises the development process. It takes the risks with no developers having signed up to invest at this stage. Is this an appropriate task for a regional council?

The scheme will require consent approval from the HBRC. The HBRC anticipates the project will be considered of national importance by the government and so it will be “called in” by the Environmental protection Agency (EPA). This would mean the HBRC would not need to be the consenting organisation for its own project. If this does happen the HBRC will still provide the technical data from which the EPA bases its decisions, presumably also with public submissions. So the developer will be providing the environmental information as well as the economic data to the EPA. The HBRC obviously sees nothing wrong with this. The community, however, may not agree with this, based on the way information has been presented to date.

In the past the Department of Conservation could be relied upon to advocate for environmental protection during development projects but the new DOC has been significantly quiet during the consultation process. Whether this is because they wish to keep their powder dry for the consent process or whether it’s part of their new “conservation with prosperity” philosophy only time will tell.

The consequences of the regional council being the developer and DOC not being visibly involved means the non-governmental organisations are left with the task of representing the public concerns as to the environmental effects of the proposed development. These groups are generally not set up for this work, are underfunded and are volunteers.

I believe this situation is very unsatisfactory. The ratepayers need to be confident that their environmental organisation (the HBRC) has not changed its spots by becoming a development organisation. HBRC staff cannot be expected to give unbiased interpretations of data when senior management pursues the development options. We are left with the EPA or the Environment Court being the only means by which a fair, equitable and transparent decision can be made and this is the most expensive and divisive approach to sustainable development .

It’s time Regional Councils were required to stick to their knitting so that the community can have confidence they will look after the environment and to leave development to private industry. Only then can we have a fair and reasonable process in which the public can have confidence that developments are truly sustainable environmentally as well as economically.

Amen Garth!


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