by Russel Norman
Last Saturday I went to pay my respects to one of the grand old men who built the Canterbury Plains, the Rakaia River.
The Rakaia River is the greatest of the remaining untamed braided rivers. Starting in the Southern Alps it reaches the ocean south of Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora. It is one of the rivers that literally formed the Canterbury plains by moving rocks and stones down from the Southern Alps over millions of years.
The Rakaia was the first river in New Zealand to be protected by a Water Conservation Order (WCO) in 1988 – Water Conservation Orders are the equivalent of national parks for rivers.
The WCO protects minimum flows in the river and draws a line in the sand against irrigators and hydro companies. In a world where greed never sleeps, and freshwater is everyday more valuable, WCOs are essential to stop the relentless pressure to take a little bit more every year until there is nothing left.
And that’s why Trustpower (owned by Infratil) and the National Party Government are determined to break the WCO protecting the Rakaia River to extract water to irrigate up to 140,000 hectares of south Canterbury. There’s money in that river and they want it.
They plan to mine this national park.
I started the day at the bottom of the Rakaia, at the Rakaia Huts settlement at the mouth of the river. I travelled with Eugenie Sage, one of the elected ECAN councillors that Nick Smith sacked because she stood up for water, and Scott Walters from the local Greens. We met with Bill Southward, chair of the hutholders association, and went out on his jet boat to see what’s happening. First time I’d been in a jet boat, quite good fun.
One of the paradoxes is that low flows in the Rakaia causes flooding at Rakaia Huts settlement. A bit counterintuitive, but at the mouth of the river it is, as Bill puts it, The River versus the Sea. The ocean current carries shingle north up the coast, and, if the river flow is weak, the sea will close the entrance to the Rakaia river with shingle. And if the entrance is closed the river will bank up and the lagoon will rise up until it floods parts of the settlement.
Bill’s lived down there for donkey’s years and has seen more and more flooding as the river has got weaker as more and more of its water has been abstracted by dairy corporations, either directly from the river or from the many bores drilled down near to the river.
He showed us how the spring fed rivers running into the lagoon had reduced in flow, as a result of the groundwater dropping under the impact of extraction for dairying.
Then we had a meeting with the locals at the community hall. A few people came over from the huts on the south side of the river but most of them from the north bank settlement. It would be fair to say that there was a fair representation of four wheel drives and the hunting fishing shooting fraternity amongst the attendees.
People at the meeting had a lot of memories and stories to share. Memories of when there used to be trout in the Selwyn river, before it was drained for, and polluted by, irrigation. Stories about how they used to swim in the rivers as kids but how they wouldn’t let their kids in them now. Stories about what a great wonderful river the Rakaia was but they feared they were witnessing its slow death just as they had witnessed the slow death of other nearby rivers.
And they had a great anger at their loss, an anger that all New Zealanders should share. They saw the arrival of the great dairy herds – 5000 cows on Rakaia island between the north and south branches of the Rakaia river with ready access to irrigation water and effluent disposal.
As ordinary New Zealanders who liked to hunt and fish and enjoy the outdoors they felt helpless when faced with the giant dairy corporations with all their money, and with the Selwyn District Council and the government in their pocket. Conspiracy theories abounded.
And rightly so, there is a conspiracy. There is a conspiracy to drain the Rakaia for more dairying. Forest and Bird’s Official Information Act requests revealed that as far back as September 2009 central government was meeting with Trustpower and had decided that they needed to change the WCO on the Rakaia if Trustpower’s irrigation scheme using Lake Coleridge for storage was to proceed. Here’s one abstract
Aide Memoire from Gerry Brownlee and David Carter to John Key, 4/9/09:
To accelerate the TrustPower Lake Coleridge proposal, application could be made to MfE to amend or revoke the existing Rakaia WCO.
Officials and Ministers were looking at how to change the WCO so they could get access to the water and lower the minimum flow. The following graphic shows probably the best case scenario for the impact of the scheme:
The Government was looking for a way forward when an opportunity presented itself in the form of the Canterbury mayors attacking ECAN. When the Government removed the elected councillors at ECAN, they simultaneously undermined WCOs in Canterbury with the same legislation. The earthquake has now provided perfect cover to steal the water from the river.
Only a people’s revolt will stop the river-eating dairy corporations and their agents in central and local government.
Then we headed upland through miles and miles of industrial dairying. Bill remembered when all this land was drystock farming and now it’s all irrigated with the Rakaia’s water.
We stopped to look at a fish trap – masses of water is taken from the north bank of the river next to the SH1 bridge and enters irrigation channels and passes through this dinky machine supposedly to remove fish.
According to those who have seen it in operation it kills more than it saves.
Here is one where water is taken from the south bank. This is the amount of water taken when irrigation is not occurring.
Then we went up to the Rakaia Gorge. Most of its length the Rakaia is a braided river spreading widely across its shingle covered river bed, but here in the gorge it is penned in for a while and it thrashes from side to side as it passes through.
We stopped for lunch above the gorge to be briefed by Dr Tim Davie from the regional council about studies underway to understand how much river water is lost to groundwater.
It seems that both flow minimums and flow variability are essential to the health of the river. Minimum flows mean that there is enough habitat for freshwater fish; medium flow events clean out the periphyton that grows on the shingle underwater; and big flows are essential for cleaning out the vegetation that grows on the islands between the braids. This vegetation can act as habitat for stoats and other predators of the birds on the river. If you eliminate the variability by controlling the flow, you eliminate the flora and fauna adapted to that variability.
Edith Smith from Ashburton Forest and Bird talked about the flora and fauna of the river. Nearly three quarters of all the wrybills in the world live on the Rakaia – wrybills are the only bird to have a a right bending beak – to poke under the shingle for food. Black fronted terns are endangered but common on the river – absolutely beautiful.
Time for my second ever jet boat trip, this time in Phil Deans’ jetboat.
Phil’s family are old time Canterbury, their family donated the park in town and the family homestead was famously destroyed in the quake. Phil is a farmer in the foothills who thinks we are doing too much too fast and threatening what makes NZ special, like the Rakaia River where he fishes and jetboats.
We went down to the Highbank intake, where Trustpower are already pumping up water using some of the existing infrastructure of the Rangitata Diversion race.
Then we headed upstream through the gorge. Stunning place. These are the places that make New Zealand special.
The Rakaia River Gorge – NZ how it’s supposed to be
Those who came before us wisely protected this magnificent river. They made this river into a national park for all of us. Now a new generation wants to mine this national park. We mustn’t let them drain the light from this beautiful river.