Water to decide the battle for Tukituki

Water is the hottest topic in the Hawke's Bay. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

Hawke’s Bay has a tasty reputation for stunning syrahs and delicious fruit, But, perhaps more than any other region, the use of water has been fiercely debated, leaving residents on both sides bitter. Shane Cowlishaw reports as a new row erupts just days before the election.

Lined up in a muddy park in Clive, hundreds of tractors sit in perfect, uniform rows.

There are giant, glistening green John Deeres, shiny red Massey Fergusons and tiny, rusted vehicles whose branding has long worn off.

Their owners are milling around, eating sausages and icecream.

They’ve come together near the Clive river to protest one thing – water use.

Today it's a Water Conservation Order (WCO) that has the farming and horticulture communities riled up.

The application by five conservation and recreation groups would see water limits introduced on both parts of the Clive and Ngaruroro rivers, something those gathered to protest say will decimate both their livelihoods and the Hawke’s Bay region.

“The thing is, water is Hawke’s Bay, that’s what makes it what it is,” says tractor mechanic Wayne Martin.

“There’s a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes that these guys in offices don’t see.”

Martin is at the rally with friend Trevor Sandilands, who sells tractors.

The pair believe that unless the issue of water is dealt with by locals, the whole region could come crashing down.

Across the country water has become one of the main election issues, but in Hawke’s Bay it’s been a flash point for some time.

A massive gastroenteritis outbreak in Havelock North’s water supply in August last year was national news.

It saw about 5500, or more than a third of the town’s residents, fall ill, put 45 people in hospital and was linked to three deaths.

A panel investigating the outbreak found both the Hastings District Council and the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council had failed in their duties leading up to the event.

Water quality aside, the use and protection of the area’s supply has also been leading news for the past few years as drought pressures create tension between primary industries and environment groups.

Until recently it was the mooted Ruataniwha Dam that divided the region’s citizens.

Suggested as a fix to the long, dry summers it sought to replenish the beleagured Tukituki river from a giant dam that would collected water that fell in the west ranges.

But the project’s scope and cost became huge - and as they did, the environmental concerns grew as well.

Eventually a legal challenge by Forest & Bird regarding the acquisition of land for the dam put an end to the project, but left behind a problem of how to look after the river’s health.

In the wake of the Ruataniwha Dam has come a new water controversy.

An application for the WCO, applied for by the combined parties of Fish & Game, Forest & Bird, Ngāti Hori ki Kohupatiki, Whitewater New Zealand and Jet Boating New Zealand, has angered irrigators and orchardists who say the move would destroy their businesses and drive up prices.

The conservation groups believe the future of the rivers are at risk from overuse and believe they are perfect candidates for a WCO, which they have described as the equivalent of National Park status for rivers.

There are about 85 water take consents in the lower Ngaruroro catchment, Stuff reported, with a 2010 report finding it was over-allocated.

But those opposed want a return to the TANK process, a group made up of local representatives from interested parties to address the issue.

TANK (named after the initials of four rivers) operated for more than three years, before being taken by surprise by the WCO application.

At the rally the crowd listened passionately to a group of speakers, even standing strong through an ironic downpour of rain.

They included Ngati Kahungunu Iwi chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana, along with Bruce McKay of Heinz, who said the proposed restrictions would destroy the horticulture industry.

“That’s like dropping the speed limit on the road from 100kmh to 3kmh,” Mckay said.

With an election close by the politicians were of course there, but candidates from all parties were against the WCO.

Despite this, the race to represent the region is running hot, especially in the Tukituki electorate where water could cause an upset.

Tight race in Tukituki

Following incumbent Craig Foss’ retirement, National was after new blood for the blue-leaning seat.

They found their man in Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule, who also held a national profile from his work with Local Government New Zealand.

Yule was expected to be a safe pair of hands to hold onto the electorate, but recent events have conspired against him.

Firstly, Jacinda Ardern’s popularity has given Labour a support boost it could have only dreamed of.

But perhaps more seriously was Yule’s involvement in the Havelock North gastro outbreak.

Mayor at the time, he is intrinsicly linked with the disaster that is still fresh in the minds of those affected.

His main opponent, Labour’s Anna Lorck, knows this could be her best shot at an upset.

After standing and being soundly defeated by Foss in 2014, the PR agency owner has been building her support and says from what her team has been hearing the race will be tight.

Lorck’s daughter was one of the first to get sick from the gastro outbreak and she’s sure the event will affect how some people vote.

“Hundreds of people are still buying water, they don’t trust the water, there’s now a well in Hastings where there’s a constant stream of people coming in day after day and filling up their plastic water containers. That’s a third-world situation.

“I’m not going to comment on [Yule’s] lack of responsibility over the water crisis, that’s something he’s had to handle. There were warnings after warnings and time and time again those warnings were forgotten.”

Yule is well aware of the potential fallout from the outbreak.

He acknowledges the race will be tight, but says he remains confident that the public’s support for National will get him over the line.

“It’ll have an impact for some people, I’ve door-knocked 6000 houses and there’s the odd person whose upset about it, there’s some people that are worried about accountability issues and who's ultimately going to take responsibility - but ultimately the inquiry found nobody caused it...there was some failings by four entities, the Hastings District Council was one of them. If it had found the Hastings District Council had caused it I would have resigned on the spot, but that’s not what it found.”

Water as a whole will be the beggest topic of the next 10 years for the Hawke’s Bay and Yule believes he is well placed to lead that fight if elected.

But if he isn’t, and the people decide to lean in a different direction, there is no plan B.

“I deliberately said I’m standing down as Mayor I’m not having a bob each way. I could have stayed on as Mayor, if the people don’t want me to be a member of Parliament then I’ll look at a new career.”