National is in an unenviable position largely of its own making. Resistance has been growing against Ruataniwha Dam, throwing the whole project, which is growing increasingly controversial because of its likely environmental impact into significant doubt. But now a court ruling has left National in a bind. Does it accept the ruling against the dam and cancel the project – costing jobs and potentially votes – or does it violate what is considered to be constitutional law and proceed with something the Court of Appeal has said no to?
But am I sympathetic to National’s hard choice? No. It did not have to come down to this, and there are many reasons other than the environmental impact as to why the Ruataniwha dam should not proceed:
- The lake that would be impounded by it would cross some large fault lines – any rupture event on one of them involving vertical displacement would send millions of litres of water rushing down the lake to possibly over top the dam
- It was a misguided use of Hawkes Bay Regional Council’s mandate and ratepayer money that was questionable from the get go
- Climate change will impact on how water takes are issued because the known amount available in a catchment will decrease, thus affecting availability
- Hawkes Bay Regional Councillors themselves have admitted the dam project is dead
The ruling (ruling starts on page 68)was in response to a proposed land swap involving Department of Conservation land. The ruling had said that Department of Conservation land cannot be grabbed by developers. At the crux of the matter was whether or not the Minister can revoke protected status on conservation land. The answer is yes the Minister can, but only if the lands conservation values no longer warrant such protection. The land at the heart of the planned swap did warrant such protection, and thus moves to revoke it would have been in breach of the Conservation Act (Section 18(7)).
This is a tough place to be for National. It wants the project to go ahead because it would create jobs and the party would be able to say it is addressing water storage issues in the region by blocking the Makaroro River.
The ruling also has legal consequences that cannot be ignored. The Government has said it is prepared to overturn the law as a result of this ruling, which in some respects would leave it in contempt of the court. That in itself is an offence. But if it happened, who would hold National to account?
But you got yourself into that spot National. Now you can get out of it.