DoC, Hawke's Bay council developer take Ruataniwha appeal to Supreme Court

The Department of Conservation and Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company (HBRIC) are appealing to the Supreme Court over a conservation land swap the Court of Appeal halted.

The government department and the regional council-owned sponsor of the Ruataniwha dam want to have the Appeal Court ruling against a land swap deal enabling the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme overruled and today sought urgent leave to the Supreme Court to argue the case.

The land exchange would "provide significant enhancements to the conservation values of the area", HBRIC chairman Andy Pearce said.

Environmental lobby the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society had asked the appeal court to prevent the land swap proposed by DOC, which would have allowed 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park to be flooded as part of the water storage scheme to provide irrigation for farmers, in exchange for 170ha of private land.

The $275 million water scheme, backed by the Hawke's Bay Regional Council's investment arm, would create a 93 million cubic metre reservoir to store water in the upper Makaroro river to improve river flows for agricultural use in the Tukituki River catchment. It's estimated it would provide irrigation for 25,000 hectares of farmland in central Hawke's Bay.

The scheme has divided opinion because it would allow farmers in the often parched central Hawke's Bay to boost production but also poses risks to the region's waterways that are already under pressure from agricultural and industrial runoff.

"The ultimate outcome sought by this challenge is to enable the controversial Ruataniwha Dam to proceed," Forest & Bird's acting chief executive Mike Kotlyar said in reaction to today's announcement. "We doubt New Zealanders would consider it to be the conservation minister's role to support irrigation schemes like this. If it goes ahead, this land swap will set a precedent for up to one million hectares of specially protected conservation land, creating the possibility that these areas can be reclassified and destroyed."

In the High Court, Forest & Bird had challenged the DOC chief's right to "trade away" conservation estate land held for recreational purposes under the Conservation Act for the benefit of commercial interests.

Earlier this month, Accident Compensation Corporation declined to comment on rumours it is the institutional investor who has conducted due diligence on the Ruataniwha Dam project.

Infratil-controlled Trustpower pulled the plug on its involvement in early 2014, followed by its other private backer at the time, South Island iwi Ngai Tahu's investment arm. HBRIC has said the project will be funded with a mix of equity and debt and is likely to result in a secondary market for water contracts. The council is putting up $80 million for an equity stake in a yet-to-be-formed irrigation company and expects a contribution from the government's Crown Irrigation Investments.

(BusinessDesk)

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