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Ruataniwha decision puts water demands before nature

Tuesday 15 April 2014 - Wellington

Forest & Bird media release for immediate use

Ruataniwha decision puts water demands before nature

Independent conservation organisation Forest & Bird says the Board of Inquiry that today granted consent for the Ruataniwha irrigation dam has failed to account for the overall environmental damage the project would cause, if it is built.

The Board’s draft report covers RMA consents for the dam, and “Plan Change 6”, which would modify the Hawke’s Bay Regional Plan.

Forest & Bird has welcomed in principle the board’s decision on the Plan Change. In it, the board rejected the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s assertions that water quality can be protected by only controlling phosphorus run-off, while allowing nitrogen to reach toxic levels. The Council’s investment arm is backing the dam.

The Board was emphatic that both nitrogen and phosphorus must be controlled to avoid algal build-up. Excessive amounts of algae destroy ecosystems, and make rivers dangerous for swimming.

“However, the Board gave only scant consideration to whether those limits would be achievable, once an additional 25,000-30,000 hectares is irrigated using water from the dam,” says Forest & Bird’s Advocacy Manager, Kevin Hackwell.

“If it’s built, the Ruataniwha dam will see an explosion of intensive agriculture in inland Hawke’s Bay. While the board’s decision imposes limits on both nitrogen and phosphorus, the board has not adequately explained how the intensive agriculture associated with the dam will meet the new limits.

“Farmers can tweak phosphorous levels to some extent, by planting stream banks and the like. But unless you do things like put all cows in sheds, and collect all their waste, you can’t stop nitrogen getting into the water.”

Kevin Hackwell says the impacts at the dam site should not be forgotten either.

“Forest & Bird submitted evidence to the Board of Inquiry on the dam’s effects on various native species, whose habitat would be flooded, and on the internationally important wader bird habitat downstream.

“Flooding the dam will destroy nearly 200 hectares of native vegetation, home to native long-tailed bats, amongst other animals. The reservoir footprint includes part of the Ruataniwha Forest Park, which is public conservation land. The dam’s backers still need the Department of Conservation’s agreement to flood that area. In theory, that should mean the end of the project.

“The quality of this decision reflects the way in which the government has set up the Board of Inquiry process. The government created this compressed, fast-track structure to smooth the way for large, highly-damaging projects like this, and the Minister hand-picked the decision-makers.

“Projects like this don’t deserve public money. Not only are they hugely damaging, they are high-risk. The banks won’t have a bar of them for that reason.

“The government’s $400 million irrigation fund represents a huge subsidy to the dairy sector, at the cost to our environment,” Kevin Hackwell says.

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