The correction of a relatively simple but hugely significant error in the 1000-page draft decision of the board of inquiry into the Ruataniwha dam proposal means the project may now be viable.
The board's final decision on the dam and associated plan change was published yesterday, and corrected an "unintended consequence" in the draft decision, which inflamed farmers, farming organisations and the applicants - the Hawke's Bay Regional Council and its investment arm.
The draft decision held all farmers in the Tukituki catchment responsible for keeping the level of dissolved nitrogen in the river at 0.8 milligrams per litre of water.
Much of the catchment exceeds that level at present, and there were fears it would put farmers out of business, and would certainly put an end to the dam proposal which would irrigate 25,000 hectares.
In its final decision, the board said the 0.8mg limit should be retained, but acknowledged it made an error in requiring individual farms to meet limits in a receiving body of water.
It lists a number of reasons why this did not make sense, including one that it potentially makes a farmer responsible for the effects of another farmer's activities.
While the board has moved away from making farmers stay within limits they cannot control, it has kept limits on the amount of nitrogen that can be leached from farms, depending on their soil types and land use.
The final decision makes it the council's job to monitor nitrogen limits in the river by regulating the amount leaching from farms. Those farms that do not exceed the leaching limits will not need resource consent.
The board said comments on the draft by the regional council had exposed the "unintended consequence".
After the draft decision was published, the chairmen of the council and its investment arm said the 0.8mg limit in the plan change had effectively put an end to the dam project, despite the dam itself getting resource consent.
It remains to be seen whether the change in the final decision will be enough to allow for the kind of intensive farming needed to pay for water from the dam.
Irrigation NZ chief executive Andrew Curtis thought the decision was overall a positive one. "Decoupling the 0.8 nitrogen limit and making farming activity subject to the [leaching] limits makes lots of sense. That will enable the dam to go ahead."
Green Party water spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said yesterday she was concerned about the rethink of the nitrogen limits.
"The original decision was very strong on the way it imposed limits . . . Nitrogen is a major contaminant - so there's a risk of its impact on the health of the river."
Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor said the regional council would have to act as both the project's investor and regulator. "We have some concerns that we will be relying on the regional council to monitor the in-stream limits and adjust the land leaching limits."
Federated Farmers Hawke's Bay provincial president Will Foley said the organisation would not be commenting on the latest 374-page decision, which it described as "The Luminaries in scope". "There's just too many intersections within the document."
- The Dominion Post