The last line of defence to save the Wairau River from TrustPower

Meet Joan and John McLauchlan. They are farmers from the Wairau Valley near Blenheim and they are the last line of defence against TrustPower’s attempts to destroy the Wairau River.

I launched my 2011 summer Rivers Tour on the Wairau River on Monday with 25 of us paddling down a section of the river.

TrustPower, majority owned by Infratil, wants to drain up to 60% of the water from the river, run it through a 47 km canal with five hydro powerstations, before dropping it back into the river. John and Joan’s property is in the way of the canal and they won’t sell.

The Wairau River is a magnificent braided river that flows northeast from Nelson Lakes National Park, down the Wairau Valley past Blenheim, and comes out at Cloudy Bay [technically it drains 'the east of the main divide including the Raglan Range, the Rainbow Conservation Area and the north end of the Molesworth Conservation Area' - thank you Quentin] .

The endemic black-fronted tern, and black-billed gull are two critically endangered species that breed on the many shingle bars that form on this variable river. 10-12% of the total population of 400-500 pairs of black-fronted tern, breed on the Wairau River. Endangered banded dotterel, trout and salmon, as well as four endangered native fish species, long finned eel, dwarf galaxid, northern or Canterbury galaxid and the giant kokapu species, will all be at significant risk due to the scheme.

Draining most of the water from 47 kms of the river will reduce the habitat available to native fish and trout, will result in hotter water, will increase weed growth, will result in reduced braids which are bird habitat and so on. It is an act of environmental vandalism on a massive scale.

TrustPower’s application has gone through all the stages of the RMA process.

It went to a hearing panel appointed by the Marlborough District Council. This panel demonstrated their depth of environmental understanding and/or concern by stating that they thought the environmental effects of draining of 60% of the river were “less than minor” and ticking the scheme.

This absurd decision was appealed to the “Environment” Court by Save the Wairau, Fish & Game and others. The “Environment” Court found that the adverse effects were actually more than minor, and that the proposal breached the council’s plan for protecting the river. But, incredibly, they decided on balance that it was an example of ‘sustainable management’. Remember the names of RG Whiting, AJ Sutherland, JR Mills, and HM Beaumont, for they are the “Environment” Court judge and commissioners who are responsible for this piece of environmental destruction.

Once the “Environment” Court approved the proposal to trash the river, the environmental movement ran out of money to take it further to the High Court etc. So now TrustPower are negotiating with farmers to put the canal and powerstations through farmers’ land.

But Joan and John say “No” they won’t sell (and others won’t also).

So now the question is: will Trustpower apply to the Government to be given the power to forcibly take their land from them under the Public Works Act. It would mean that the National Party Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, would have to agree to  forcibly take farmers land so that TrustPower can trash the river.

It will be a test to see if the party of property rights will use coercive state power to take land off farmers for a large corporation, and whether Smith is the Minister for or against the Environment.

Koura farmers – the canary in the coal mine

Aside from TrustPower, one of the other threats to the river is intensive agriculture. This is no better demonstrated than by the experience of freshwater aquaculture farmer, Peter Wilhelmus. Peter has been farming salmon and koura (native freshwater crayfish) near the Wairau River for many years.

The problem for koura farmers is that they need clean water. And that means that if you have deer or dairy or pig farmers upstream then they need to have good practices. And unfortunately some farmers are good and some are bad and there are few regulations to force the bad ones to behave.

Water pollution from Mill Stream killed off Peter’s salmon, probably a toxic algal bloom. When finally, after a decade of complaints, the Marlborough District Council investigated, the report found that Mill Stream is highly polluted, even though it is a spring-fed, with high levels of nitrate, e.coli and sediment from stock effluent etc.

Peter is still battling along breeding koura, even breeding some red ones.

Things have improved a bit but it has taken a huge toll on Peter and his business. Freshwater aquaculture has great potential but it needs councils and governments that will stop water pollution rather than turn a blind eye to a ‘permitted’ activity. The pollution in Mill Stream ends up in the Wairau River.

Forestry

As if the rivers didn’t have enough problems, then there are poor forestry practices.

The recent storms in Marlborough caused massive damage because of silt and debris coming down from logging sites. Poor forestry harvesting practices, such a logging to the edge of waterways and multiple dirt roads across waterways without bridges or culverts, means that heavy rain events release tonnes of soil and masses of logging debris downstream. The silt destroys habitat in rivers by filling in the gaps between gravel and rocks, gaps where native fish live, and the debris gets caught under bridges causing extra flooding of houses and farms.

It seems that the Marlborough District Council rules were inadequate, assuming the companies followed the MDC rules (hard to know for sure as very little enforcement or monitoring). Either way people’s houses were flooded and the rivers bore the brunt of the sediment.

So you might think it’s a step forward that the Ministry for the Environment is looking at establishing a National Environment Standard on Plantation Forestry. An NES could put in place a minimum standard for forestry practices which could lift practices in places like Marlborough.

However, the NES could act to reduce environmental standards depending on how it is written. If the forestry industry has its way, the NES will impose maximum environmental standards not minimum standards. Thus individual councils would be prevented from setting a higher standard. This is the case, for example, with the Labour Party’s NES on telecommunications which prevents councils from taking a more precautionary approach to non-ionising radiation coming out of cellphone towers.

So we shall see which way Nick Smith goes on the NES on forestry – a minimum standard or a maximum.

Thanks to everyone involved in my trip, including members of Forest & Bird, Fish & Game, Save the Wairau,  the local Greens, and concerned locals. Particular thanks to Kerry Raeburn and Steffan Browning.

The Wairau is one of our great rivers but it is at risk. It is only because of the efforts of people like these who love this country that our natural environment stands a chance against vandals like TrustPower. Central and local government and the Environment Court are supposed to be the guardians of the environment but are manifestly failing to perform that task.

12 thoughts on “The last line of defence to save the Wairau River from TrustPower

  1. What’s climate change going to do for the Wairau ecosystem (and indeed for the people that live near the river)? Regular large floods and droughts don’t exactly do wonders for the life in the river.

    NZ’s challenge is to get to 100% renewable electricity and then on to replacing non-electric fossil fuel applications (maybe 150% of current capacity). We aren’t going to do that without more hydro schemes.

    If the Wairau is the wrong place, then where are the right places? Pumped storage on the Waikato? High level hydro in the Alps (like this system in Switzerland).

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  2. So now the question is: will Trustpower apply to the Government to be given the power to forcibly take their land from them under the Public Works Act.

    You think that is even up for debate? An additional 72MW of capacity in the upper South Island certainly would be a good thing to have, especially that its of the non-CO2-producing variety, so I think it’ll be a no brainer.

    Upper South is using (as I type this) about 175MW, so having 72MW of that locally produced will be good all round; that’s up to 72MW that doesn’t need to go from Islington upwards.

    The Upper South is highly reliant on the Lower South for power, even when the SI is importing from the NI. All that’s up there is Cobb, 34MW, and Branch River at 11MW, both of which stations have been around many years.

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  3. > The Wairau River is a magnificent braided river that flows northeast from Nelson Lakes National Park…

    Technical correction: only a few hectares of Nelson Lakes NP is in the catchment, with the western catchment boundary (the St Arnaud Range, the main divide) being the NP boundary. The Wairau technically drains the east of the main divide including the Raglan Range, the Rainbow Conservation Area (that borders Nelson Lakes NP) and the north end of the Molesworth Conservation Area. Not National Park, but very very nice country indeed.

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  4. What a pity Mr Norman doesn’t actually get his facts right. Blanket statements like “draining up to 60% of the river” are simply not correct, and the endless hearings and evidence have shown that. Mr Norman would be far better to concentrate on getting the real facts, and focussing his efforts on supporting sustainable development, rather than trying to make political capital using material provided by parties with vested interests in stopping progress.
    Funny thing is, aren’t the McLauglans dairy farmers, and therefore party of the polution problem?

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  5. Dud, you write:

    “What a pity Mr Norman doesn’t actually get his facts right. Blanket statements like “draining up to 60% of the river” are simply not correct, and the endless hearings and evidence have shown that. Mr Norman would be far better to concentrate on getting the real facts, and focussing his efforts on supporting sustainable development, rather than trying to make political capital using material provided by parties with vested interests in stopping progress.”

    Dud, the ‘Environment’ Court decision at para 280 spells it out in black and white that the maximum take is 60% of the flow.
    http://static.stuff.co.nz/files/ECD.pdf

    Dud also writes: “Funny thing is, aren’t the McLauglans dairy farmers, and therefore party of the polution problem?”

    Having visited the Mclaughlan’s farm, I remember sheep and beef, and I don’t think they do dairy. But that doesn’t really change the argument, there are lots of good dairy farmers.

    So Dud, wrong on both counts – you don’t happen to work for TrustPower or Infratil do you?

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  6. Thanks Quentin, post updated.
    Rich, db, our submission was all about alternative ways of generating or saving the electricity produced. We can keep damming all the rest of the wild rivers, and then we’ll have to figure out how to meet our needs without damming more, or we can stop damming them now and figure out how to meet our needs while keep the last of the wild rivers.

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  7. Russel
    I admire your selective reading and interpretation skills. there will only be a 60% take at times of high flow as I read things, and at some times, there will be no take at all! And there are minimum flow requirements. you make it sound like the whole river will be wrecked by this plan, when the reality is that 50km of it will simply be altered.
    I’m particularly impressed by the fact that you appear, judging from photos,to have paddled below where the water that it taken will be returned to the river.
    What a pity you didn’t particpate in the submission process – it would have been great to see you challenged on facts in a legal environment. Maybe you would have learned something as well, rather than relying on your local candidate, who can’t get votes for either parliament or council. Maybe his vote count should tell you something in terms of your party’s credibility in the area, and on this issue in partcular?

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  8. Russell, I suggest you read the Resource Management Act again. It’s not Nick Smith but the Minister of Lands who is involved in any actions under the Public Works Act.

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  9. The utility applies to the Minister of Land Information Maurice Williamson to appropriate the land (under the Public Works Act).

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  10. Russel writes: “Rich, db, our submission was all about alternative ways of generating or saving the electricity produced. We can keep damming all the rest of the wild rivers, and then we’ll have to figure out how to meet our needs without damming more, or we can stop damming them now and figure out how to meet our needs while keep the last of the wild rivers.”
    But there is no dam on the Wairau, and no plans for one either.
    As I understand things, the propsal that worries Russel so much simply imvolves diverting some of the flow from one braid, and then putting it back in the river further downstream.

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  11. CrazyIvan and SPC. I am not an expert on the designation process, but my understanding is that TrustPower would apply to Minister for the Environment under Part 8 of the RMA (on the grounds that they have an irrigation component to the scheme) to become a Requiring Authority. Once they are a Requiring Authority then they can get the land designated and then apply to Minister of Lands to compulsorily acquire it under the Public Works Act. My blogpost was shorthand for this proces.

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