Our greatest rivers

Water Conservation Orders – national parks for rivers – are good for wildlife and people.

By Hamish Carnachan

The West coast's Mokihinui river which was saved from a 85 metre dam. Photo: Craig Potton

The West coast's Mokihinui river which was saved from a 85 metre dam. Photo: Craig Potton

There’s a perception that hydro-electric power generation equates to renewable energy. We’re told this by power companies that claim they’re good corporate citizens, so it must be true. Right?

The water used to power the turbines might be renewable but an often conveniently overlooked fact is the number of free-flowing rivers we have left to support such schemes is finite and dwindling. Put simply, wild rivers are not renewable.

Recent decisions by power generators to pull out of, or put on hold, development plans that would have destroyed the wild nature of the Mökihinui, the Arnold and the Wairau rivers, all under the guise of meeting increasing energy demand, might indicate that hydro schemes are a threat on the wane.

That remains to be seen, but the demand for irrigation water for booming intensive agriculture
represents an escalating danger. Water Conservation Orders (WCOs) are an important
protection mechanism in New Zealand’s statute specifically to head off threats to nationally outstanding waterways.

WCOs effectively give a water body the same status as a national park. The Resource Management Act (RMA) allows WCOs to safeguard the outstanding recreational amenity or intrinsic ecological values that the water in a river or lake provides.

It is the highest level of protection that can be given to any water body, preserving its natural, scenic and recreational values.

Fifteen WCOs protect water bodies and, in many instances, a vast network of tributaries – important in their own right – that feed into them.

New Zealanders appreciate our national parks but generally lack awareness of the similar status bestowed on key waterways. This is why Fish & Game NZ, assisted by Forest & Bird, Whitewater NZ, the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), Federated Mountain Clubs and several other groups, has embarked on a campaign to raise the profile of WCOs.

In 1981 Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson, along with Ecologic’s Guy Salmon and EDS chairman Gary Taylor, was instrumental in securing this legal protection mechanism for outstanding rivers. EDS was behind the first WCO to protect the North Island’s Mötü River.

Fish & Game has since initiated 12 WCOs and championed all the others. The organisation’s interest in these waterways has centred on protecting fisheries, but important cultural, natural and recreational values have also benefited.

Equally, the WCOs led by other groups have helped recreational anglers. Safeguarding rivers from extractive irrigation and development creates wins for wildlife, the community, recreation and the economy through tourism opportunities.

The Manganuioteao River runs for about 138 kilometres from its headwaters on the western slopes of Mt Ruapehu, and is the third-largest tributary of the Whanganui River. Anglers, kayakers, campers, trampers and birdwatchers enjoy the river, which could have been
lost forever without far-sighted locals who recognised the significance of the wild waterway and took steps to protect it from development.

In the late 1970s the river and the deep valley it has incised were identified by the then New Zealand Electricity Department as a potential site for a hydro-electric power scheme.

Landowners, anglers, community members and local groups opposed the scheme, and, in 1979, petitioned. Parliament to save the river.

Protective measures came into force in 1981 when the then Rangitïkei-Wanganui Catchment Board successfully recommended to the National Water and Soil Conservation Authority that the minimum flow for the Manganuioteao River be restricted to no less than 90
per cent of the remaining natural flow for five years.

This effectively halted any immediate hydro developments, though this protection was set to expire in 1987.

With the threat hanging over the river, conservation groups continued to seek enduring protection. In 1988an application was made under section 20D of the Water and Soil Conservation Amendment Act (1981) for a WCO.

Finally, in 1989, the Manganuioteao River and its main tributaries (including the Waimarino and Orautoha streams, and the Orautoha and Mangaturuturu rivers) were protected by a WCO to recognise its wild and scenic characteristics, its significant wildlife habitat for whio (blue
ducks) and as an outstanding recreational fishery.

Former All Blacks captain Anton Oliver is lending his name to the promotion of WCOs. “When I look at how much we have lost to damming, to extraction for irrigation, to pollution from intensive agriculture, I think it’s so important that we understand and appreciate what wild
and scenic rivers we have left – we’re dealing with a finite resource here,” he says.

WCO protection is far from watertight, however. The government’s ECan Act legislation in 2010, which dissolved Canterbury’s elected regional council, also set up the potential demise of Canterbury’s WCOs, enabling yet more development of the under-siege river systems.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright released a report in May this year calling for greater protection of New Zealand’s wild and scenic rivers and the WCO provisions.

The report concluded that freshwater management policy ignores the value of preservation and gives preference to dams and storage lakes, which “have the greatest impact and cause irreversible damage”.

Dr Wright’s latest paper, combined with the New Zealand Conservation Authority’s November 2011 report, Protecting New Zealand’s Rivers, and the new awareness around WCOs, adds volume to the chorus of concern about the state of our rivers and lakes and the increasing pressure they are under.

Hamish Carnachan is Fish & Game NZ’s communications manager.
More information: www.outstandingrivers.org.nz