Russel Norman

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

by Russel Norman

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.


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.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Russel Norman on Wed, January 12th, 2011   

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