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Andrew Curtis: Water conservation orders dam up vital discussion

OPINION: The past few weeks have seen hundreds of Hawke’s Bay residents take to the streets to protest against a proposed water conservation order that would limit the amount of water taken from the Ngaruroro River. Nearly 400 submissions on the order have been received, with submitters split evenly between those for and against.

The Ngaruroro has had water drawn from it since the time settlement of the Heretaunga Plains started more than 100 years ago. Its waters support the orchards and vineyards that contribute to Hawke’s Bay’s identity and our enjoyment of New Zealand grown produce. Two-thirds of New Zealand’s apples come from the area, along with nectarines, onions, sweetcorn, squash and internationally renowned red wine. Thousands of jobs in Hastings and Napier rely on produce and business from these fertile plains.

To understand the protests, we need to step back in time. In 2012, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council facilitated a range of groups to come together to consider how water from the Tūtaekuri, Ahuriri, Ngaruroro, and Karamū Rivers should best be managed. Named TANK, it involved around 30 local groups including farmers, growers, iwi, Forest & Bird, Fish & Game, Napier City and Hastings District councils, along with the regional council.

The TANK group is nearing agreement on a water allocation model, after investing in new science on how the Heretaunga Plains groundwater system links to the rivers. While most of the original participants are still at the table, working with everyone else, Fish & Game and Forest & Bird have broken away and lodged a separate water conservation order. This action undermines the work that has gone on over the past five years and the goodwill everyone else in TANK has demonstrated by working together.

As proposed, the water conservation order would allow less than half of the water currently taken directly from the river to be drawn when the river flow is below 70 cu mecs, or cubic metres per second. The affected areas become much larger when you take into account that growers who use groundwater on the surrounding Heretaunga Plains will likely have their water use restricted by the order, as the new science indicates the groundwater and river water systems are connected.

From mid-October 2016 to April 2017 the mean river flow was always less than the 70 cu mecs. This means most summers, fruit trees, crops and vines would die without water and the industries and jobs they support would be threatened. Heinz Watties has said that the water conservation order could see the company shutting down its Hawke’s Bay operation, with 1600 employees at risk of losing their jobs.

These potential impacts, along with concerns that a community-led process is being undermined by national environmental lobby groups, have seen Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and Hastings District Council oppose the water conservation order. Napier Mayor Bill Dalton has spoken out against the order. It has also resulted in the protests we have seen on the streets.

The Water Conservation Order process is quite unlike the TANK collaborative process. The application focuses upon the river. It’s then up to groups to battle over whether they can continue to use water for productive uses. It’s combative, legally focused and outdated in terms of international best practice for water management. There needs to be consideration of impacts on jobs and communities as well as the river from the outset.

The health of the river is of course extremely important, particularly for those who rely on it for their livelihood. All water users will need to become more efficient in the future and solutions need to be found to support river flows during the summer. Many of the submitters support a water conservation order on the Upper Ngaruroro River to protect its outstanding features, and we supported this in our submission. But the lower river is not “outstanding” and has provided water for irrigation for over 100 years.

Given what’s happening in Hawke’s Bay, we have to ask if the water conservation order process is still fit for purpose. We think not. It urgently needs reforming. While it’s a goldmine for the lawyers and consultants representing the 30 groups who have an interest in the river, pitting groups against each other in an adversarial process is not constructive.

Once the hearing is over, these same groups have to work together to implement the decision. This will be made so much harder by the bad blood that is being created during the current process.

Andrew Curtis is chief executive of Irrigation NZ, a national non-profit membership organisation for the irrigation sector.

 – The Dominion Post


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