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July 17, 2017 | by  | in News Splash |
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DAM: Scheming in Rural Hawkes Bay

Prolonged periods of drought and intensified farming has led to an increased demand for irrigation, and the subsequent degradation of the quality of local waterways in the Hawkes Bay Region.

The Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme was developed by the Hawkes Bay Regional Council as a solution that would provide a secure and reliable water supply to local farms.

The Scheme would involve damming the upper Makaroro river in the foothills of the Ruahine ranges to create a seven kilometre long storage lake, intended to provide secure irrigation for 28,000 hectares of associated farmland.

The storage lake would be created by flooding 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park, land protected under the Conservation Act.

Hawkes Bay farmer Hugh Ritchie intensively crops cereals and seed, and also runs a lamb finishing operation on his farm in the area. He supports the Scheme because it would supply his farm with consistent water for irrigation, and he believes that good management practice would allow farmers to meet environmental requirements, while increasing farming production.

Ritchie said that alternatives to the dam, such as on-farm water storage, were not a viable option in the Hawkes Bay region. “There are some examples [in other parts of New Zealand] where people have built their own dam and things have gone quite well. Don’t get me wrong on that. But the reality is that you need a specific geological formation which suits storing water in order for it to be possible. Not everybody has access to surface water to collect over those high periods [of rainfall].”

Conversely, agricultural systems specialist, Barrie Ridler, opposes the Scheme on the basis that the conditions of the Hawkes Bay region make the Scheme not economically worthwhile. “The increased irrigation from the scheme may add some extra feed or ability to grow crops or produce, but only in a few years out of ten.”

Ridler criticised the projected productivity as “ambitious,” noting that the data collected by the Council when proposing the Scheme was only over a one year period. “They have not looked to what those rewards may be over a period of years and different seasons.”

Ridler criticised the GDP-centric approach focusing on general increased farm productivity, rather than profit for farmers themselves.

“When you look at the full cost of irrigation, you have to pay the $0.27 per cubic metre fee, every year. You will rarely be able to cover the costs of the irrigation over a ten-year period. You have just put another mortgage on your farm — a fixed cost every year whether you use it or not. There might be more productivity, but the farmers aren’t actually going to have increased profit.”

One of the major criticisms of the Scheme is its likely negative environmental impacts. Intensifying farming will result in increased effluent runoff and nutrient leaching.

Ritchie believes that these issues will be negated, because some of the water used for irrigation will recharge the groundwater, and regular environmental ‘flushing flows’ will replicate natural river flows to wash out algae and slime.

“To my mind, we are doing actual captures of water losses and drainage from our property in an intensive situation, and we’re losing very low levels of nitrogen. Doing things right, you can actually mitigate that and mitigate losses as well.”

However, Ridler criticised this reasoning, and said that dissolved in-stream nitrogen levels in the Hawkes Bay rivers were already above the recommended maximum amount.

“The same argument is being used all the time, that what we can do is intensify [farming] but recharge the aquifer or flush the rivers because we now have control over the water. But the economics of it mean you have to sell as much water as possible — so, retain all that water behind the dam for production — rather than allow it to flush rivers or recharge aquifers. It’s a very flawed idea based on GDP, rather than actual profit or environmental impact.”

“A number of people are providing reports which give a very glowing answer to what they’re looking at, rather than a measured response.”

For the scheme to take place, it was necessary for DOC to revoke the protected status of the land under the Conservation Act.

Acting as delegate for Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry, the Department of Conservation (DOC) Director General, Lou Sanson, ‘swapped’ the protected status of the 22 hectares of land for 170 hectares of private land, under the Conservation Act.

Sanson said that, although the 22 hectares did have significant conservation value, the swap would create a net benefit because it would result in a “higher conservation value.”

However, DOC’s process for approving the swap was successfully challenged by Forest & Bird in the High Court, a decision which was upheld by the Supreme Court on July 6.

The Supreme Court found that the revocation of the protected status of the land was not lawful, because the Director General’s reasoning was not consistent with the Conservation Act.

Revocation of protected status is possible only if the conservation value of the resources on the land “no longer justify that protection.” Because the 22 hectares retained ecological and landscape value, as accepted in DOC’s submissions, protection under the Act was still justified.

Following the decision, Barry said that the Government would look at amending the Conservation Act to ensure that land swaps such as these could be undertaken.

Barry claimed that the Government had long believed that the Conservation Act allowed the swapping of a low value piece of conservation land for a piece of land with higher conservation value, and that the Director General had “acted in good faith” when revoking the status.

Hawkes Bay Councillor Paul Bailey told Salient that he believed this was “frankly disingenuous.”

“They were backpedaling at 1000 miles an hour,” he said. “The whole thing with that land swap was about making use of conservation land for, essentially, private commercial purposes.”

Chief Executive of IrrigationNZ, Andrew Curtis, claimed that the test currently set out in the Act was unreasonable, and “did not meet international standards of best practice.”

“The whole point of the legislation was to allow DOC to effectively manage its estate, […] but the law here gets in the way of that.”

“What’s being swapped at Ruataniwha is effectively gorse and pine trees on a river bed, which has low biodiversity value. But the problem is that according to the test, that needs to have lost its value completely. […] A piece of asphalt could retain its conservation value and be protected.”

Although a law change would not apply to the Scheme retrospectively, it would allow the Government to change the test for approving land swaps in the future to a ‘net benefit’ approach.

“It’s very easy to value land from a dollars and cents perspective,” cautioned Ridler.  “But we need to look at natural resource economics to ask what kind of value you’re actually looking at.”

Ridler said that comparing commercial value with an environmental value system was unhelpful. “How do you capture the value of the experience of being in native bush, […] of community values?”

“Once it’s lost, the people who come through won’t understand what we’ve lost. To me, if in fact the government is allowed to override the community’s wishes to retain the environment, we’ll end up much worse off — and all for a few dollars.”

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