Dodgy Ruataniwha Dam will destroy rivers and indebt farmers

The Ruataniwha dam is one of the largest irrigation schemes planned in New Zealand.  If it goes ahead it will create more industrial dairy farms and pollute the rivers in the Hawkes Bay.  And despite overwhelming evidence that industrial dairying is not only destroying rivers but also indebting farmers, Federated Farmers continues to throw their support behind it.

In a recent opinion piece Hawkes Bay president Will Foley sung the praises of the Ruataniwha dam.  But he also reminded us all that “there are plenty of reasons not to take part in the scheme.”  We certainly agree on that point!

Here are three good reasons why you’d want to run as far from this dodgy dam as possible.

1. Debt

Big Irrigation goes hand­-in­-hand with industrial dairying. We’ve seen that in other parts of the country, and HBRIC’s own reports state that around 37% of the Ruataniwha dam will be for dairy farming.

Despite the allure of high profits; the expansion of industrial dairy farming, fuelled by industrial irrigation schemes, has actually gone hand in hand with a colossal expansion of farmer debt.

NZ dairy farmers are now among the most highly indebted in the world ­ their debt more than trebling since 2003 to a staggering $38 billion. Why? Because since the 1990s, the use of nitrogen fertiliser has increased fivefold, the use of Palm Kernel as supplementary feed has gone from next to  nothing to nearly 1.4 million tonnes per year, and the use of costly irrigation has increased.

So while dairy farmers might be producing more in volume under this high­input industrial model, they’re having to borrow more to do it, especially when it comes to irrigation. No doubt There are winners in this deal: They’re the companies involved in the construction and maintenance of irrigation schemes, the fertiliser companies, the supplementary feed companies and the banks who make interest on the loans. But are the majority of farmers also winning?

The stats suggest otherwise. In the 2014­15 season, 49% of the dairy sector was operating below the point of breaking­even, and now it’s expected that up to 20% of these dairy farmers may go under.  Sadly, it’s likely that more of their farms will be snapped up and merged into huge corporate operations.

A glimpse at our census data reveals that in the last 15 years 22,000 NZ farmers have simply disappeared.

Given all this, why on Earth is Federated Farmers continuing to support and promote a dam that serves a broken industrial dairying model that is causing farmers to go broke?

2. It’s only possible with a public bailout

Ruataniwha has failed to attract a single private investor. In fact, it’s even scared them off.  Since the only two private investors pulled out, HBRIC have been unable to lure in any others.  As a result, the project looks set to require $333 million dollars from the public purse.

That’s $1.6 million per farm that the public are being asked to cough up on irrigation that will expand an outdated model of industrial farming that’s indebting farmers and polluting our rivers.

That money would be better spent supporting farmers to develop ecological practices that would see them prosper and enjoy a competitive edge on the world stage, without ravaging our

rivers and environment.

3. It will pollute the rivers of the Tukituki catchment

Dam promoters are either delusional or intentionally making scientifically laughable statements

that serve their vested interests when telling the public that water quality in the catchment will

improve if the dam goes ahead.

Here’s the real story: The water taken from the dam will be used to intensify dairy farming using an industrial model reliant on chemical fertilisers. This will dramatically increase the number of dairy cows, and therefore the amount of nutrient pollution and bacterial contamination that makes its way into our rivers. 

The 25­storey high concrete wall of the dam will cut off the pristine Makaroro river, a river that would naturally flow to the Waipawa and then on to the Tukituki. Instead of following its natural course, the Makaroro will instead end up pooling on farmland. Whatever water from the Makaroro that does make its way back into the rivers will be laden with agricultural pollution.

Even if you trust reports that there are enough farmers signed up to the scheme, this dodgy dam is far from a done deal.

It still does not have the funds it needs to be built.

It still doesn’t have access to the conservation land that would be destroyed in order to build the dam.

It only has the barest of necessary council support, especially now that Councillor Debbie Hewitt has at long last declared her financial conflict of interest.

It doesn’t have the resource consents it needs, they are under legal challenge.

And, perhaps most importantly, this dam does not have public support. Of the 147 submissions on council spending an extra $42 million on Ruataniwha, 138 were not in favour. Only a meagre 9 submissions supported it.

The only certainty around this dam is that the public opposition to it continues to mount as more is revealed about how terrible it will be for farmers, our rivers and the public who are being forced to pay for it.