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Build the dam now, suffer the consequences later

Build the dam now, suffer the consequences later

The Tukituki Board of Inquiry issued a draft decision on Friday aimed at resolving the final form of Plan Change 6, which sets the environmental regulatory regime for the Tukituki catchment, including the proposed Ruataniwha dam, if it proceeds.

In a victory for environmentalists, the BoI affirmed that the DIN limits (regulating nitrogen in the waterways), strongly opposed by HBRIC and the Regional Council, would in fact stand. Most importantly, the BoI made clear that the dam scheme and individual farmers using scheme water would need to operate such that the DIN limits would be met by 2030.

To that end, a monitoring, reporting and review requirement was added as a condition to the consents earlier granted. If this monitoring indicates the DIN limit is being exceeded, then HBRIC must identify specific actions that will be taken by irrigator-landowners to ensure compliance.

In short, farmers using dam water must meet the new DIN limits within fifteen years. The Regional Council is also required to review the nitrogen leaching limits in Plan Change 6 to ensure that the DIN limit is on a trajectory to being met.

With the DIN limit firmly in place, HBRIC must now argue, reversing its position when the BoI originally proposed the DIN limit, that the dam consents with these conditions are now indeed ‘workable’.

HBRIC must now convince CHB farmers that they needn’t worry about meeting DIN limits in the far away future, and can therefore feel secure entering long term water purchase agreements.

HBRIC chief Andrew Newman began the renewed water sales campaign on that note in the weekend HB Today, commenting that 2030 was “a long, long way from now. We believe farming practices and technology will improve substantially over that period of time in relation to nutrient management.”

In other words, sell 35-year water contracts and pour the concrete now, and hope for the best in terms of meeting environmental requirements in the future. Effectively, to reassure the public and to sell its water contracts, HBRIC must convince farmers that a rescue party will arrive before 2030.

In contrast, dam advocate and Irrigation NZ chief executive Andrew Curtis called the BoI decision “a far from practical outcome” and said: “We believe nutrient limits set for the Tukituki system remain unrealistic for what is a productive working agricultural landscape.” He apparently failed to get the ‘all’s well message memo’ from Andrew Newman.

Environmental leaders, while pleased with application of the DIN limit to the scheme and its users, are less sanguine about where this all leads:

Environmental Defense Society chairman Gary Taylor commented:

“…we are concerned as to whether there are gaps remaining in the conditions of consent that would enable on-going degradation through to the target year for compliance with the DIN limit of 2030. New condition 12A which addresses the obligations between now and then relies on the regional council acting if exceedances are found. But the regional council will have invested hundreds of millions into the Dam project and so will be conflicted in its regulation role.

“There are still questions over the viability of the irrigation scheme and we would be dismayed if a scenario unfolds where the dam goes ahead and pressure then comes on to ease the compliance regime to help make it work. Poor water quality should not be an outcome from this project.”

Forest & Bird’s Kevin Hackwell echoed that, saying:

“…any proposals for intensification in the TukiTuki valley are going to have the meet new nitrogen requirements to protect the river. In light of this draft decision it would be irresponsible for the Regional Council to commit ratepayers’ money, or to sign up farmers, to the scheme without having proved to their satisfaction that the formidable reductions in nitrogen pollution were possible.”

Obviously, if the dam proceeds as HBRIC wishes, it will be built and farming will intensify long before anyone – including the conflicted regulator HBRC, who will be panting for a dam dividend – ever sees the adverse environmental impact. The farm environmental management plans needed to reduce on-farm nutrient leaching are not even due until 2018, and will only begin to gain traction after that.

Simple common sense would dictate a different scenario than the one HBRC and HBRIC have driven against all criticism and legal setbacks.

The common sense scenario:

1. Accept that the Tukituki is already seriously degraded.
3. Implement Plan Change 6 vigorously and demonstrate that water quality in the Tukituki catchment is actually being improved.
5. If and when a clearly improving water quality trajectory was confirmed, then consider the viability of any dam.
But contrary to common sense, HBRIC/HBRC has the cart before the horse.

Parties have until 15 May to comment on the new draft BOI decision. And then legal appeals are possible.

Tom Belford

P.S. To get the full flavor of the debate ahead regarding the impact of the BoI decision, here are the initial statements of the Environmental Defense Society, Forest and Bird, and HBRIC.


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