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Can farmers and fishers co-exist on the Tukituki?

From mountains to sea, the Tukituki presents economic opportunity, but only if it can be harnessed in an environmentally sound way, as Jess Soutar Barron reports.

For Kiwis, rivers are life-blood. Mauri. They feed our spirit, energise us. They are a place of recreation, a place to play, a vital link in our economic potential. For visitors who have been wooed by the 100% Pure New Zealand promotion, rivers and the recreation opportunities they conjure up, are part of the pull.

In Hawke’s Bay, the Tukituki runs 110km north and east from the Ruahine Ranges where the headwaters start in the same hills as the Manawatu River.

It flows past Waipawa and Waipukurau, into Hastings District, where it runs down Middle Road to Kahuranaki Road and then under Red Bridge, to Black Bridge. It meets the sea just north of Haumoana.

In many ways the Tukituki is our defining river, it is certainly the one that makes it into the photographs.

And what is our picture of a perfect river? Clean, clear, cool fresh water; fish, insects, birdlife. A setting for picnics, swimming, angling, kayaking. Traditionally the backdrop for our idyllic day by the river is pastoral: An orchard, a vineyard, a dairy farm.

Here is where we find ourselves walking a fine line between supporting a vibrant economy, enjoying sustainable recreation opportunities, and protecting nature’s intrinsic values.

The Tukituki is a playground, but it’s also a crucial part of our agricultural and horticultural spine. It is an integral cog in our infrastructure, an economic engine, and pivotal to our sense of place and purpose as a region. We ask a lot of our Tukituki. This creates a number of issues, with many people and interests involved: water allocation being one, runoff from farms and sewage discharge being others – what goes in, what comes out.

Ups and downs of water

Nearly 500 consents permit water to be taken from the Tukituki catchment by property owners, mainly for irrigation. But it’s accepted that too much water has been allocated, placing the river ecosystem and recreational values under stress. Certainly in high summer the low flow is too low. But rights are rights and resource consents are resource consents. Clawing back allocation is seen as tricky to navigate – who gets water and who misses out?

The journey to resolution begins close to where the Tuki’s own journey starts, in the Ruataniwha plains. Here, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is proposing the construction of a $200 million dam and distribution scheme, which will ultimately require $300 million or more when on-farm costs are included.

CHB poo ponds discharge into Tukituki

What farmers want is security of water supply … already an issue, and one that will worsen as global warming begins to take its bite. So to farmers, the ‘promise’ of the dam is increased and more reliable water supply. HBRC’s aim is that consent holders will be migrated to stored dam water for their irrigation, leaving the Tukituki to flow its merry way un-tapped. HBRC talks of a 30% increase in flow. There is even a vague hope that the river might return to “close to normal flows” (Draft Long Term Plan 2012-2022).

However, the dam will also enable up to 30,000 hectares of additional irrigated land, that is, thousands more hectares of intensified farming. Depending on the mix of land use – how many sheep, cows, apples, grapes, potatoes, dairy – this will cause even more nitrates and phosphates to enter the water. The trickle-down effect, pun intended, is that the water in the Tukituki will have even more nutrients in it, harming aquatic life and diminishing recreational values.

But nutrient run-off from farms is not the Tuki’s only problem. Its other major source of pollution is wastewater effluent from two sewage treatment settling ponds, one in Waipawa and one in Waipukurau, which is discharged into the river.