Mercy killing for the Ruataniwha beast
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.
Hawke’s Bay is already a dry region and is also facing climate change.