Andrew Newman, CEO of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, is also mindful of the careful balance the river demands.
“Irrigation impacts on the flows are an important element of the conversation, particularly in those intense times of the year when really everyone wants access to the river for recreational fishing, swimming, aesthetics, as well as for the agricultural production further up in the catchment,” says Newman.
The HBRC readily admits that taking water from the Tukituki to irrigate exacerbates issues with the river, but sees the dam and water storage as potentially a win/win situation: more (and more secure) water for farmers, together with higher flows supporting a healthier river.
But more irrigated land will put more nutrients and sediment into the river. The nutrient loads will depend on how the land is used. However, it is almost impossible to project how land use will change when more irrigation is feasible.
More dairying, for example? One HBRC projection anticipates that one-third of CHB’s irrigated land would go into dairying. Dairying uses huge amounts of water and discharges equally significant amounts of waste. It needs careful, sustainable and concerted management of stock and pasture. And although no one in the debate wants to finger point: In every industry there are cowboys.
There is a fundamental presumption amongst HBRC planners and consultants that there’s significant room for improvement in farming practices that would mitigate the environmental impacts of intensified farming. Obviously, if everyone was already doing the right thing and the river’s already stressed, then there wouldn’t be headroom to accommodate even more farming on the irrigated land.
Farmers and farm scientists know about ‘best practices’ and interventions that can reduce farm pollution. Laundry lists of potential improvements are being prepared as the HBRC readies its case for the dam. But the trick is getting them adopted by the 200 or so farmers who would be served by the dam.
Helen Codlin is HBRC’s Group Manager Strategic Development and the person charged with planning how those who would have consents to take from the river might be required to meet environmental standards (which presently do not exist), how they will be monitored and then held to account.
“To date we have used non-regulatory approaches and what we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked,” says Codlin, who admits that the only people the HBRC has worked with on their resource management practices are those farmers who wanted to be worked with.
Andrew Newman agrees there’s a lot riding on the cooperation of the farming community. “There’s a significant change process for them with this particular journey, but our conversations so far have been open and pretty constructive.”
“We want to return the river to its natural state during those periods of the year when it’s in very heavy use,” he says. “We want to deliver three things: Environmental gains, economic gains, and community resilience. We are also saying that we will bring a variety of interventions into play with which to do that. Some of those are practice based, some of those are regulatory based and some of those are infrastructure based.”
A question that hangs in the minds of many is: If there are rules for farmers upriver participating directly in the dam scheme, will those same restrictions apply to farmers downstream? And, how will farmers take to potentially draconian interventions around what they can or can’t do on their land – for example, limiting cows per hectare or fertiliser inputs?
HBRC claims there are a number of tools in their arsenal in terms of controlling what goes into the river and what is taken out for irrigation purposes. The main concept on the table involves two levels of protection.
First, as required by the new National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, overall nutrient limits would be set for the first time via the Resource Management Plan for the Tukituki (probably on various segments of the river). Then, based on that framework, farmers’ individual consents to take water – in the form of contracts with the new water company that will own the water storage scheme – would include conditions setting forth required practices.
Of course, environmentalists will be concerned about the stringency of the overall water quality standards, about how protective the conditions placed on individual farmers are, and finally, about how – and how rigorously – they will be enforced.
“Audited self-management should be the way of the future and we have to build that confidence and that trust to get there,” says Newman. “Verification of a system as opposed to compliance of a specific, that’s where I’d like to see the whole regulatory system evolve to.”
“It’s not going to be simple and it will be horses for courses,” says Newman. But HBRC still hasn’t said exactly what the limits will be, how ‘prescriptive’ the conditions placed on water use will be, or what form penalties for breaches will take. Said one HBRC staffer: In Australia, they turn the water off.
Graeme Hansen, HBRC’s Group Manager Water Initiatives, is the project lead on the dam proposal. He’s philosophical about change in the behaviour of farmers.
“We’ve gone from the good old days where we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and farmers were saying let’s just pour it on, it doesn’t matter – be it water or fertiliser. I think there’s a real awakening in this world and in this region.”
To summarise the issues:
It’s a lot to absorb, and not a lot of time to do it in. The water storage scheme is floated in HBRC’s Long Term Plan, which must be adopted by June 30. Yet key decisions about water quality standards, allocation mechanisms, and mitigation practices and enforcement are yet to be made.
In fact, the key land use and environmental studies have not been completed and released to the public.
Yet the public’s opportunity to comment on the dam proposal will end on May 16. It seems the Regional Council has put the cart before the horse … perhaps leaving its process open to challenge.
Our picture perfect river setting might appear all right on the surface, but swim a little deeper and the future wellbeing of our wairua may not be so clear.