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Politics muddies the waters

Issues

Tom Belford14 September 2020

BB54

Apart from national and local body candidate elections, the most intense local politicking in Hawke’s Bay occurs around water.

The issues are quite complex, despite the fact that all the controversy boils down to two simple questions from the public’s point of view:

  • Who gets it – how is it allocated?
  • What is its quality – how safe and well-protected environmentally?

While most folks are distracted by the pandemic and its immediate economic and social impacts, these two water questions are being fiercely debated today by HB decision-makers.

Who gets it?

Hawke’s Bay generally has ample water, except when the environment and human users most need it.

So it’s in times of scarcity – and preparing for times of scarcity – when pistols are drawn. Ecosystems and the life they support suffer, irrigators face bans on their takes, many (not all) pastoral farmers lack natural feed, residents – who are most protected and suffer least – are politely urged to conserve.

With only so much to go around, the allocation regime becomes pretty important, as do schemes to harvest water when it is more plentiful.

Heretaunga Plains

On the Heretaunga Plains, future allocation will be determined by the TANK Plan, years in germination. Submissions on the plan have just ended, but with counter-submissions, staff responses and revisions considered, it won’t be until next March that a hearings panel makes its final determinations and passes these to the Regional Planning Committee of the HBRC, that all parties will see the result. And then they have the right to appeal to the Environment Court.

With respect to allocation, effectively a ‘sinking lid’ is proposed. During the TANK process, it was determined that the Heretaunga aquifer was at the tipping point, where if more water was used, natural replenishment of the aquifer would be insufficient … we’d be ‘mining’ the aquifer. And so a ‘cap’ was placed, no new water allocation, with the plan calling for a downward ratcheting of existing water consents as they came up for renewal.

But even at that, the plains were acknowledged to face a water deficit because streams were obviously already suffering and irrigators faced occasional summer bans. The size of this ‘deficit’ has been estimated at 5-10 million cubes per year, but that’s only a crude estimate. The $2m study to more accurately size the gap, taking into account projected growth in commercial, residential and environmental water demand won’t be completed until this time next year!

Anticipating a gap of some significance, the Regional Council is using $11.2 million from the PGF to pursue potential water storage schemes to fill it. If the ‘gap’ remains as estimated, one or two modest scale storage or augmentation projects would seem to meet the need, without environmental collateral damage.

However, many Māori prefer a more direct approach – cut water use to what nature provides, giving first priority to protecting our ecosystems. And might go to the Environment Court to press that view.

And still others argue that much more rigorous water conservation measures must be implemented before storage schemes are considered, alongside adoption of farming practices proven to better retain and use existing water.

CHB

Even more contentious is the allocation situation in Central Hawke’s Bay.

Water there is deemed over-allocated, as indicated by unhealthy low-flows during summers in the Tukituki catchment and questionable aquifer levels and recharge, as residents of Ongaonga and Tikokino have charged.

The issues are obscured by both an inadequate understanding of the Ruataniwha aquifer and the absence of any analysis of long-term water demand in the region under plausible future land-use scenarios.

But the major ‘elephant in the room’ is the fact that a very small number of water users – each a major dairying operation – have been awarded the preponderance of the CHB water allocation. Here is the picture as compiled from HBRC-provided allocation stats:

 Total Dairy = 20,728,183 cubes

Epic (Bel Group) 8,329,665

Ingleton/Franklin 6,118,883

Plantation 3,700,832

Ruataniwha Holdings 994,613

Cesped 800,380

Tuki Tuki Awa 783,810

Given the total allocation for the aquifer and upper Tuki surface water takes is 49.5 million cubes, Dairy accounts for 42% of that (counting only the six dairy operations identified above). The top 20 irrigators in the two areas hold 31.9 million cubes, or 64% of the total.

By comparison, the entire CHBDC municipal allocation is 3,202,655 cubes.

It’s up to the residents and politicians of CHB to decide whether this is an allocation scheme that is either fair or future-facing.

On its face, it would seem that calls for significant damming of CHB rivers and streams simply amount to subsidising the water use of these few dairy businesses. Something ratepayers elsewhere in the region have indicated during the Ruataniwha dam debate they have no desire to do.

Dam-supplied water might help a few irrigators, but water storage is not the ‘silver bullet’ to improve overall farm resilience in dry periods. Far more ‘bang for the buck’ would be achieved by modifying current pastoral farming practices, on the one hand, and shifting away from unsustainable land uses on the other.

As with the Heretaunga Plains, the HBRC has a significant pot of money ($14.7m) to explore ‘water security’ options in CHB. Unfortunately, in its haste to grab PGF funding, the Regional Council has put the cart before the horse … looking for storage solutions before any real examination of a long-term water future for CHB or at measures that might yield better, more efficient use of existing water. ‘Water security’ is not simply a matter of ‘water storage’.

The designated venue for addressing such matters has been the Tukituki Leaders Forum (TTLF), consisting of about a dozen commercial water users and two environmentalists. However the environmental members have recently resigned, writing to convenors CHB mayor Alex Walker and HBRC chair Rex Graham in part:

“Given recent events, the membership of the TTLF gives the distinct impression that it was formed with a predetermined outcome in mind. It certainly cannot be considered as representative of the wider CHB community.

“Procedural concerns also arise. Meetings of the TTLF have been held in private, with no minutes kept, or public statements released. The decision-making process is presented as being a commercial secret. This lack of transparency, once it becomes apparent to the CHB ratepayer community, will undermine public confidence in any outcomes from the TTLF.”

It’s clear that some in CHB, with Tim Gilbertson’s Water Holdings Hawke’s Bay in the vanguard, continue to lust for major dam-building. The CHB District Council recently kept this group afloat, awarding it $58,000 to keep its fifteen Ruataniwha dam consents alive.

Resuscitating the Ruataniwha scheme is a non-starter. It was killed by the Supreme Court. It falls well outside the modest scale of water storage that the PGF will fund. And the HBRC’s latest study conducted by Tonkin + Taylor confirms previous analysis that concluded a smaller dam at the Makaroro site (to which the consents actually apply) is not viable for a number of physical and financial reasons.

Any significant new dam proposal would entail in the neighbourhood of $2-3 million to substantiate and progress the relevant consents, a cost to be borne by the applicant (HBRIC would have spent around $5m in its quest). Yet the Gilbertson group pleaded poverty and inability to pony up $58,000, securing a corporate welfare cheque from CHBDC instead.

For transparency sake, and for any hope of avoiding a renewed pitched battle that simply delays fashioning reasonable water options for CHB, it would be useful for leaders, formal and informal, in this journey to take unequivocal public positions ruling out the Ruataniwha dam scheme once and for all – folks like Rex Graham, Martin Williams, Craig Foss, Alex Walker, Sam Robinson, Hugh Ritchie need to confirm they’ve moved on.

Then the current and expected future demand for and expected use of water in CHB needs to be freshly and openly examined.

What about water quality?

To some, thanks to the Havelock North campylobacter outbreak, ‘water quality’ is firstly about drinking water and its safety. To others, the issue is the enduring health of our waterways and the ecosystems and recreational opportunities they support.

The water plans for both the Tukituki catchment (in force) and the Heretaunga Plains (in development) address both kinds of water quality concerns.

Tukituki catchment

In the case of the Tukituki plan, the focus has been more on ecosystem health, with rules in place that should ratchet down the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus leaching and eroding off of farms and into our waterways.

All Tukituki catchment farmers have submitted ‘Farm Environmental Management Plans’ (FEMPs). These require farmers to identify contaminant loss from their activities and present plans for mitigating those, eventually collectively meeting in-stream nutrient targets set by the plan. We have yet to see what traction and environmental benefit FEMPs will actually achieve – for example, certain stock exclusion and N limits must be met in 2020. FEMPs are ‘living’ and must be updated and re-submitted before 31 May 2021.

Meantime, the so-called ‘DIN’ limit (a limit on in-stream nitrates) in the Tukituki Plan places tougher requirements on farmers operating in catchments now exceeding the limit. Each of these farmers must apply for consents to continue their operations, with about 300 due in 2020. It is yet to be seen what conditions the HBRC will impose on these applicants such that nitrogen leaching is sufficiently reduced.

Put alongside the need discussed above to re-address overall water allocation, the DIN limit may well operate to force significant land use changes in CHB.

TANK plan

From an environmental perspective, the water quality issues on the plains have focused on the slower moving streams like the Karamū and on soil erosion from upper reaches of main rivers, the Ngaruroro and Tutaekurī.

The Regional Council is presently implementing a $30 million programme involving riparian planting and afforestation to combat erosion, which results in sediment clogging our streams and critical estuaries … and eventually unloading millions of tonnes of sediment annually into our marine environment.

More contentious is the issue of low-flows, which damage river and stream ecology. What ‘low-flow limits’ should be set (which can trigger bans on irrigation) and whether schemes can be developed that effectively ‘augment’ water flow (either from storage or by pumping from the aquifer) are the matters of controversy.

The TANK Plan as notified addresses both of these issues, reflecting consensus developed during the six-year TANK stakeholder collaboration, but it is not yet clear the extent to which the plan will be further challenged through the consultation and appeal process.

Possibly of greater perceived urgency to many Hastings District and Napier residents are the TANK provisions dealing with drinking water safety. While drinking water standards are set nationally, the TANK plan must address practices that could lead to endangering drinking water supplies – e.g., the kind of contamination that caused the Havelock North catastrophe.

The plan proposes ‘source protection zones’ in which special steps must be taken to safeguard against agricultural and industrial discharges that could conceivably infiltrate drinking water bores. This scheme has been ‘negotiated’ amongst the Hastings and Napier Councils, the DHB and the Regional Council. Controversy ensues because the plan assumes rather detailed knowledge of underground water flows, and conceivably could seriously constrain economic activities in the zones thought to pose potential risk to drinking water supplies.

Overlay this issue on the non-TANK matter of whether drinking water should be chemically treated (i.e., chlorinated) and you have fertile ground for contention.

And finally, to make it even more complicated, we then face the question of how to pay millions of dollars for the delivery system that will distribute all this safe and protected water to your household. Enter central government.

Three Waters

The Government has proffered $50 million to HB’s four territorial authorities to upgrade their drinking water (and wastewater and stormwater) systems (our region had sought $314m for such improvements).

The funds would be allocated as follows:

• Wairoa District Council $11.04m

• Napier City Council $12.51m

• Hastings District Council $15.36m

• Central Hawke’s Bay District Council $11.09m

However the offer comes with a fishhook that introduces political tension.

To access the full funding, our councils will need to opt into the Government’s Three Waters ‘service delivery reform programme’. The intent behind this is to promote a consolidation of service delivery across councils, including potentially, new governance arrangements for this service, its future planning and financing arrangements – i.e. in one form or another, an independent water authority.

The Government believes local bodies have shirked their responsibilities for maintaining water infrastructure in the past, which in part is what has led to woefully inadequate water infrastructure around the country. As they see it, and not without evidence, local politicians would rather build high profile museums, sports facilities and other amenities, and perhaps should not be entrusted with the dirty work of underground pipes and waste treatment plants.

As the Government explained in its announcement:

“The financial investment from the Government is contingent on local councils opting in to the Government’s wider water reform programme. The cumulative effect of increasing capital costs, infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, enhanced standards and environmental challenges mean that the current operational and governance arrangements for water are not sustainable and consolidation is required.” [Italics added here and below]

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta made plain the big ‘If”:

“There are massive looming costs across the Three Waters networks and the current service delivery arrangements, particularly for the smaller rural and provincial councils, are not well-placed to meet these.”

“Today’s announcement will lend the reform programme’s initial stages very real impetus and Councils will need to sign up to the wider reform agenda in order to access the Government’s funding.

“We want to see new arrangements made that provide scale in the form of public multi-regional water entities – and take account of catchment-related and communities-of-interest considerations.”

The willingness of our local councils to go down this route – requiring each to yield some independence – is yet to be determined. They have been examining options since early 2019, and the review report was making the rounds privately in August. It is due to be made public in September.

The carrot of government subsidy aside, under alternative governance arrangements that ‘de-politicised’ water infrastructure investment decisions, the new water entities would have substantially more borrowing capability to finance the huge costs involved, and moving such borrowing off the councils’ balance sheets would allow them to deploy their resources and more limited borrowing capacity to other community needs.

It would be highly surprising if the local politicking around ‘3 Waters’ goes smoothly. And it will be interesting to hear who ultimately gets to decide matters like whether the Napier City Council continues its quixotic quest for a chlorine-free future.

Just as CHB needs to bite the bullet on its massive allocation of water to dairying, NCC’s political leadership needs to face up to the reality that Napier’s roughly 65,000 citizens cannot afford the same kind of pristine, chlorine-free drinking water system funded by nearly 6 million Danish citizens who pay every day for their water.

Hopefully this tour of Hawke’s Bay’s ‘waterfront’ provides some insight into the difficult political choices ahead for the region. Massive commercial interests, huge environmental implications, massive monies, value trade-offs and serious control issues are at stake.

We’ve entrusted our elected representatives to make these decisions. The least our councillors can do is treat us ratepayers as adults, entitled to full transparency and timely engagement as the debates unfold.

Tom Belford14 September 2020

BB54

3 responses to “Politics muddies the waters”

  1. John Warren says:

    Wairoa and CHB alone will not be able to fund their water requirements so funding must come from others in the regional group or from Central Government. This isssue needs to be openly discussed. As for ribbon cutting projects, the capital cost is only a small portion of the commitment and ongoing maintenance and operating costs are rarely discussed. The Chief Executive Model has reduced the influence of professionals in advising Councils. This I think has contributed to short term thinking for basic infrastructure. I hope the government 3 waters approach will cause our municipalities to give more attention to their basic responsibilities.

  2. Gill Appleton says:

    Could you explain why you call Napier’s residents’ wish to have chlorine free water ‘quixotic? We were led to believe that Napier’s water was not contaminated but that there a small number of bore heads which did not meet current best practice and were a source of possible contamination in adverse conditions. Given that chlorination has produced unpalatable water in parts of the city where the bore water contains manganese,it could be claimed with some justification that that the ‘cure’ is worse than the problem it was supposed to fix.

    • BayBuzz says:

      Hi Gill, while I sympathise with desire fro chlorine-free water, and appreciate Mayor Wise’s efforts to explore and deliver that outcome, I simply do not expect the Gov’t will ever accept a future ‘case’ from Napier City Council or any other major municipal water supplier that they can sufficiently guarantee safe water without chlorine treatment. Bores are not the only potential source of contaminants and the broader integrity of the entire delivery system would likely require $$ investment well beyond the ability of Napier ratepayers to fund. Hence the term ‘quixotic’ … that’s not a comment on the goal itself.
      Tom Belford

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