Jon Morgan: All is not lost for Ruataniwha Dam

Some of the 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park that the Department of Conservation had agreed to swap to pave the way ...

Some of the 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park that the Department of Conservation had agreed to swap to pave the way for the Ruataniwha Dam.

OPINION: It would be shame to think all the effort that has gone into the Ruataniwha Dam project to bring reliable water to Central Hawke's Bay farmland could be wasted. But that is the fear following a Supreme Court decision against a crucial element – the swap of 22ha of DOC land for 170ha of farmland, much of it in bush and wetland.

It is encouraging that the Government thinks the law around such swaps should be clarified – after all, the nine judges that considered the issue were split 5-4, so there obviously is some confusion. And DOC finds it convenient to make around two of these swaps each year.

But the future of the dam is in the hands of regional councillors, and a sizeable bloc was voted in at the last election to quash the dam. They must be delighted that the court, along with a ready-made scapegoat in Forest and Bird, has given them this opportunity.  

According to an internal review the council can consider withdrawing from the project but must make "meaningful" consultation with the public first. However, in the current highly charged election climate when environmental activists are making all sorts of wild allegations about farmers, a reasoned debate is unlikely.

READ MORE:

Government may change law after court rules against DOC land-swap

Councillors say Ruataniwha dam project 'dead' after court decision

Already, many people are saying the dam is sunk, but I don't see it that way. The $19.5 million spent on it so far should ensure it is not written off. The research and reports will still exist, and if legislation change means the land swap can be revisited then it is all on again.

However, it is up to the councillors – whoever they will be – when the time is right to look at the dam again. By then, another local election could have been held, and it will be crucial for the dam supporters to win over the urban doubters who made such an impact last time.

To rural folk, the benefits are obvious. It will remove the risks of farming in dry summers and open the way for highly profitable horticulture.

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Financially, it stacks up for the region. The scheme is projected to bring between $130m and $380m for the Bay, create up to 3580 jobs and put at least $2m more on the Port of Napier's books.

For the environmentalists, the downside is the possibility of more dairying. To them, dairying equals pollution and they are swaying a significant part of the population to this flawed view.

It would be wrong to classify all the anti-dam councillors as anti-farming. The dam scheme carries some financial risk for the council. According to the internal review, cash returns are forecast to fall short of the 6 per cent required by the council in the first 22 years of the scheme's life.

But something has to be done about water supply on the plains and if the dam is shelved then already planned tough restrictions on farmers that will ravage the region's economy will come into force without alleviation.

Where are bold, far-sighted politicians when you need them?

Jon Morgan is editor of NZ Farmer

 - Stuff

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