A Wairarapa iwi has raised its concerns over a multi-million dollar dam project in the area.
Rangitāne o Wairarapa leaders have criticised the company behind the Wakamoekau community water storage scheme [WCWSS], saying the scheme proposed for near Masterton lacked an assessment of its cultural impact, and had yet to conduct public consultation.
Wairarapa Water Ltd [WWL] is the driving force behind the scheme. Formed in 2017, the company adopted work started by Greater Wellington Regional Council, among other stakeholders on "water security" in the upper Ruamahanga river network.
The reservoir, if built, would hold up to 19 million cubic metres of water and supply about 28 million cubic metres a year.
The Ruamahanga is the largest river in the Wairarapa valley.
After considering many sites, WWL targeted a site in the hills above Masterton for a "community reservoir".
Rangitāne board members said they were "concerned at the rushed time frames and incorrect information" that had been used to push the water storage project.
Tiraumaera Te Tau, the iwi's board chair, said it needed to do "due diligence to understand the full picture before we, as an iwi, can decide whether to partner with this project".
"This is a significant project that will have lasting impacts for our future generations and creates huge environmental change."
Te Tau said the area held great significance to iwi, "our kaumātua [elders] told us that Rangitāne people historically had pā sites alongside the Wakamoekau river.
"Our rivers are wāhi tapu [sacred places] for us. We have been here for many generations, and we will continue to be here for many generations to come.
"Our whānau are the descendants of the people who lived here, and we have a responsibility to them and our future generations to ensure these places flourish."
Robyn Wells, WWL's chief executive, said the company "is committed to working in partnership with iwi".
Wells said much of the project's time and focus this year has "gone into listening and talking to the community to understand concerns and incorporate aspirations for the WCWSS".
"WWL believes a solution with Rangitāne o Wairarapa is still possible and will continue to make significant efforts toward attaining a CIA from Rangitāne o Wairarapa that is acceptable to both parties.
"It is WWL's desire to create a project for the community, endorsed by the community.
"The WCWSS seeks to be part of the solution for providing water security to the region.
"We have consistently and publicly said that the WCWSS is not the only solution for managing water resources in the catchment, but it is one that has been investigated in detail for almost 20 years, has gained wide support as a community-based water security solution with multiple benefits, and has financial backing from a variety of sources including from central and local government."
Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, like Rangitāne o Wairarapa, is mana whenua in Wairarapa.
Tai Gemmell, general manager of Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, said the iwi did not "have a firm opinion on it, pending the outcome of its own cultural impact assessment", which is due early in 2021.
"From Kahungunu ki Wairarapa's perspective, we certainly see the benefits of having an established water reserve in the Masterton district.
"We see the economic benefits of it, we see the residential benefits from it.
"But our main concern is what environmental impact it will have further down the catchment area. And that's everybody else's concern as well.
"Over and above that, what we're trying to do is if the proposed dam goes ahead that the area where the proposed dam is established is not going to jeopardise any potential land sites which were unique to Māori habitation.
"That's what we're working towards at the minute. That it is clear, and it is not going to have a cultural, and historical effect on what is unique to Wairarapa."
Local environmental groups shared Rangitāne o Wairarapa's concerns.
Ian Gunn of Sustainable Wairarapa said the project "has proceeded with minimal public scrutiny".
"It is time to stop, pause and have a real conversation on achieving a resilient Ruamahanga river catchment.
"Local people need to own and manage their resources for the good of all the community rather than a narrow sector controlled by a private company.
"There is the knowledge and innovation within the community to deliver and create a resilient innovative thriving Ruamahanga River catchment."
Gunn was also concerned that a district and regional council plan to conduct a magnetometer survey this summer, looking for deeper groundwater aquifers, could cause the dam to become redundant.
Last week, WWL repeated its target of completing work by 2026, subject to approvals.
The scheme has already been cited as a dependency by public schemes throughout the Wairarapa valley. Users of Opaki water race, near the proposed dam, have said they need the scheme to replace the network after Masterton District Council's decision to close it.
MDC and race users are in talks to extend the race's closure until the dam is in place.
Wells said a final resource consent application for the WCWSS is due to be lodged at the end of February 2021.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.