Failed Ruataniwha dam still causing contention as council agrees to relieve financial stress of backers

2:06 pm on 7 August 2020

A rural council in Hawke's Bay has agreed to relieve the financial stress of a controversial group that owns the rights to a failed dam project.

Ruataniwha Dam

The site where the failed dam project was proposed for. Photo: SUPPLIED

In 2018, a plan to build the Ruataniwha dam was blocked by the Supreme Court.

Forest and Bird claim the new council money could put the dam back on the table.

But the Central Hawke's Bay mayor said it was more about keeping options open.

South of Hastings, with rolling farm hills and the small towns of Waipukurau and Waipawa, sits Central Hawke's Bay.

Its Mayor, Alex Walker, said her rural district had been grappling with the realisation that water was not infinite.

Mayor Alex Walker

Central Hawke's Bay Mayor Alex Walker. Photo: Central Hawke's Bay District Council

"We have a situation where a vital resource which many people, our whole population to be honest, saw as an unending resource for far too long.

"And it's not, it's finite."

The Ruataniwha dam was going to be set up to help solve the problem of water security. Millions of ratepayers' cash was spent.

After a fight from environmental groups, the Supreme Court ordered the dam could not go ahead.

The court said a land-swap needed to free up conservation land for the scheme was not legal.

The intellectual property and consents were sold to Water Holdings Hawke's Bay.

The group recently asked the council to grant $58,000 to meet science charges - the costs of monitoring and managing consents.

At its latest meeting, all but one of the district councillors there voted to grant the fund.

Forest and Bird helped lead the charge against the dam proposal and its freshwater advocate, Tom Kay, said the council funding was an "absolute joke".

"The ratepayers are basically continually being asked again to invest in this failed scheme," Kay said.

He said Water Holdings Hawke's Bay was aware of the ongoing financial charges and should bear them.

The proposed Ruataniwha dam site.

Another view of the site where the dam had been proposed for. Photo: SUPPLIED

But one of the group's directors, Tim Gilbertson, said they did not have the financial backing to pay the charges.

"We're five individuals who've just done this on behalf of the community. Four of us are old age pensioners," Gilbertson said.

"If we're working on behalf of the community the community might like to give us a loan to pay us through until such time the consents are used on behalf of communities."

Deputy Mayor Kelly Annand voted against granting the fund, as she wanted more debate.

But she accepted the council's decision.

"I'm supportive of our council, it's a democracy and the reality is you win some, you lose some and that I guess is how it is and we're very much a team at the end of the day."

Walker said it was not about deciding the dam is the "one horse to back".

She said the council is not questioning the court's ruling.

"No, this is absolutely about keeping options open on an issue that cuts right to the heart of the future of this community so it is our responsibility as leaders to help keep those options open."

Even though it was a grant, Gilbertson says he would be happy for it to be a loan and Walker the council would be open to having that discussion.