It can be argued that voters in the Hawke's Bay Regional Council elections voted emphatically against the proposed Ruataniwha Dam.”

So read the editorial in Sunday’s Hawke’s Bay Today. A 5-4 pro-dam majority on the old council now looks like a 5-4 or even 6-3 advantage against the dam (if the councillor who’s currently on the fence dismounts on the side of the anti-dammers).

Don’t you just love democracy? 

Anyone who cares about water quality in New Zealand should take a moment to celebrate this victory.  

The Ruataniwha Dam would be a golden ticket to more industrial dairy farming in Hawke’s Bay. The dam company’s own report suggests it would drive an additional 9,000 ha of dairying. That’s a lot more cows, a lot more urine and faecal matter and a lot more runoff.

The district’s water is already under pressure, as evidenced by the recent gastro outbreak in Havelock North. The last thing the council should be doing is green-lighting an industrial dam that will compound water pollution problems. 

The dam is also significant in terms of other large-scale irrigation schemes nationally. Ruataniwha has been the poster child for the Government’s Think Big irrigation programme. If it goes ahead, it risks creating a domino effect for other such schemes around the country. Luckily for proponents of clean water, the poster child seems to have morphed into an enfant terrible. 

Unusual suspects seemed to have turned out and voted against the dam. The Hawke’s Bay Today editorial again:  “Increasingly this newspaper started hearing about normally conservative, pro-establishment residents of Napier being strongly opposed to the dam being built.” 

That’s because these people had done the maths. If the dam doesn’t wash environmentally, it sure as hell doesn’t pass the test of financially prudency. A number of retired accountants, CFOs and businessmen in the district did the sums, and decided that the case for the dam just doesn’t stack up. And they said so via their voting papers.

So what now? Is the dam definitely dead in the water?  

The new council has work to do, and no time to waste. This is not just a case of chucking the dam proposal in the bin. $80 million dollars has been put aside for the dam in the council’s long-term plan. If (and this should be a given), the new council decides it wants to pull the money and spend it more wisely elsewhere, the decision would need to go out to public consultation. The public needs a say on a financial decision of such magnitude. This public submission process is not a referendum - the council is not bound by the results. But they will be a good final indication of where people stand on the dam.

One new councillor has called for a “cup of tea” - a David Lange allusion implying the new council should pause for a moment and take stock. Others are calling for a moratorium. 

Why pause or prevaricate? The people have spoken. The message is clear. Ditch the dam. The newly elected councillors have been chosen by their communities to lead; to make hard calls; to do the right thing. They campaigned on an anti-dam platform. Now they must be true to their word and show some backbone. There’s no time for tea. A strong coffee on the run maybe, but certainly no sitting around taking tentative sips.