Mercy killing for the Ru­atani­wha beast

The Hastings Mail - - FRONT PAGE - MARTY SHARPE

The bel­liger­ent brute that was the Ru­atani­wha Dam was dealt a mer­ci­ful bul­let this week. Its demise fol­lowed a long and painful pe­riod of ill-health in­ter­spersed with fleet­ing, but ul­ti­mately hope­less, mo­ments of re­cov­ery.

It can now be dis­patched to the back pad­dock, home to other beasts in var­i­ous states of Rigor mor­tis or de­com­po­si­tion; in­clud­ing, but not limited to the Manapouri Dam, the Mil­ford-Dart Tun­nel and the Project Hayes Wind­farm.

All promised great riches, jobs aplenty and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits and all were op­posed by de­ter­mined en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists (though some would shun the term).

Hav­ing fol­lowed the Ru­atani­wha Dam pro­posal from its in­cep­tion, and sat through more dam meet­ings and hear­ings than any right-minded per­son should have to, I’m feel­ing a sense of relief. For the un­in­formed, or un­in­ter­ested, here the dam’s brief life story.

Hawke’s Bay has long, hot, dry sum­mers, and cli­mate change will make them more so. One of the re­gion’s main rivers, the Tuk­i­tuki, gets in a bad way every sum­mer as its flow de­creases. Mak­ing mat­ters worse, the Tuk­i­tuki is ‘‘over-al­lo­cated’’; sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered about a decade ago that too much water was be­ing drawn for ir­ri­ga­tion in sum­mer for the river’s health to be main­tained.

The Hawke’s Bay Re­gional Coun­cil, which had granted the water take re­source con­sents, was cop­ping a lot of grief from peo­ple la­ment­ing the degra­da­tion of a wa­ter­way they once used to flock to for swim­ming and fish­ing.

This is where things, in my view, went awry.

To its credit, the coun­cil de­cided water stor­age was a log­i­cal so­lu­tion. Water that fell in the ranges to the west could be stored be­hind a dam and re­leased into the Tuk­i­tuki as needed. To its detri­ment, the coun­cil went fur­ther than look­ing at sim­ple water stor­age, and be­fore we knew it, it was talking about a huge dam and ir­ri­ga­tion scheme cost­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars and trans­form­ing the dusty plains of Hawke’s Bay into ver­dant fields of grass, ru­mi­nants and veg­eta­bles.

The coun­cil chief ex­ec­u­tive at the time, An­drew New­man, was a smart, like­able man with in­ex­haustible drive who cham­pi­oned the dam like an evan­ge­list. Some­one less bull­headed and thick-skinned might have pulled the plug some years ago, but New­man and a group of sup­port­ive coun­cil­lors ploughed on, ap­par­ently res­o­lute in their be­lief that the dam was a win-win for the econ­omy and the en­vi­ron­ment.

Oceans of East­light ring­binders burst­ing with ex­pert ev­i­dence flowed from ei­ther side and the water be­came very murky in­deed. When equally qual­i­fied sci­en­tists go head-to-head with con­flict­ing views, how is any­one sup­posed to make sense of it? The Board of In­quiry that was sup­posed to make the fi­nal call cer­tainly strug­gled, and ended up with a non­sen­si­cal de­ci­sion that the High Court sent back to the draw­ing board.

Eco­nomic fea­si­bil­ity of the scheme aside, those who op­posed it were be­ing asked to be­lieve that if the dam went ahead the strict con­di­tions in place would en­sure that any in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of the plains would not have a detri­men­tal ef­fect on the river or ground­wa­ter.

Guar­an­tee­ing to­day what coun­cils will do to­mor­row was al­ways go­ing to be a stretch, and so it proved. Op­po­nents, wisely in my view, weren’t buy­ing it.

In the end it was For­est & Bird’s suc­cess­ful chal­lenge to the ac­qui­si­tion of De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion land that made the dam pro­posal ter­mi­nal.

The sad­dest as­pect of this saga is that all par­ties had com­mon ground – the health of the Tuk­i­tuki – and nearly a decade later we ap­pear no closer to fixing it.

PHOTO: JOHN COWPLAND

Hawke’s Bay is al­ready a dry re­gion and is also fac­ing cli­mate change.

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