Wild River

Debs Martin issues a call to arms to save the Mokihinui and our other wild rivers from hydro development.

A once barely-known West Coast river, the Mokihinui has sprung to prominence as the defining river for Forest & Bird’s campaign to protect our wild rivers.

Last year we highlighted the imminent threat to the Mokihinui from a hydro dam proposed by power company Meridian which would destroy the Mokihinui River valley. Eighteen months on we have defended the river at a resource consent hearing and are waiting for the decisions which will determine its future.

While electricity generation, irrigation schemes and pollution pose significant threats to other rivers like the Nevis, the Hurunui, the Wairau, the Ngaruroro, the Manawatu and the Waikato, the Mokihinui still stands out. The river and the proposal for an 85 metre high hydro dam within public conservation estate epitomises all that is fundamentally wrong about the way some industries in New Zealand conceive of, treat, and ultimately value our rivers.

In the opening words of the Department of Conservation’s lawyer, Dean Van Mierlo, at the hearing: “The Mokihinui hydro scheme is the largest scale proposed flooding of public conservation land in New Zealand since the Manapouri scheme of the late 60s and early 70s. If constructed, it will be the largest inundation for hydro electric generation purposes of lands and ecosystems set aside for protection and conservation ever seen in this country.”

The West Coast has had its fair share of battles to save forests. Now it is hydro electricity generation that has become the new threat. Set aside as “stewardship” land, with a full range of protection yet to be properly identified, the Mokihinui catchment has suffered by being left out of plans for Kahurangi National Park.

The Mokihinui is a large wilderness river with hugely significant values – to which DOC’s 16 expert witnesses testified at the hearing. It is home to blue duck/whio, abundant longfin eel, its own species of Powelliphanta snails, and a raft of native birds and invertebrates. The vegetation in its catchment ranges from high mountain forest, through extensive beech, podocarp and broadleaf, an unusual riverbank turf zone and swathes of seral vegetation – the plants that grow to heal the scars left by earthquake and rain-triggered erosion.

Northern rata does not grow any further south inland than the Mokihinui catchment – an irony given that Meridian Energy, the State-owned enterprise promoting the hydro scheme, is also the major sponsor of Project Crimson, an organisation set up to protect rata and pohutukawa. The Mokihinui hydro scheme’s effect of drowning all the rata within a 330 hectare zone will far outweigh Project Crimson’s programme of new planting.

Now bring it all together: public conservation land, very high biodiversity values, stunning landscapes, high natural character, important fisheries and a recreation wilderness for all to enjoy. DOC has stood strong on this one, and deserves praise for doing so. Our concern is that in the current political climate, where DOC is being instructed by ministers to consider opening up areas for mining and other development, the department, and ultimately the public conservation estate, will become political fodder.

The only argument for damming the river is one that says “but what else will we do for power?” This is a simple question, requiring a complex answer. It is no good shifting the problem onto the doorstep of another river, another community or non-renewable sources. It requires our country to become more aware of the limitations within which we live, as well as taking available opportunities for achieving serious goals in energy conservation and efficiencies.

The November 2008 briefing to incoming Minister of Energy Gerry Brownlee revealed we could make savings of 6400 gigawatt hours a year at less cost than building new electricity generators. The Electricity Commission could save 840 gigawatt hours (equivalent to Dunedin’s yearly power use) by 2016.

It requires smart technologies, government investment in newer technologies, and a political and energy sector willingness to alter the focus from a growth and profit-driven industry, to one of integration and responsibility.

The reverse is that we continue to dam our remaining wild rivers and have none left for our future generations to enjoy – and, more importantly, our biodiversity to survive and thrive.

The Mokihinui campaign has brought together an eclectic mix of people: residents, trampers, conservationists, hunters, scientists, whitebaiters, anglers, historians, farmers, geologists, kayakers and rafters. All of these people have experienced the wonder and the wildness of the Mokihinui, many walking, rafting or kayaking the 14 kilometre gorge that would be inundated by a hydro lake.

With more 60 rivers around New Zealand identified as possible hydro sites, we can’t afford to take on each river as an individual campaign, even if each of them had the special values of the Mokihinui. But we do know that wild rivers on conservation lands are a target.

For example, in the Wellington region140 of 170mW of potential hydro generation projects are within conservation land or in native forests; in Tasman region 435 of 480 mW (more than 90%) of hydro “potential” is located within or near public conservation land, including the southern entrance to Kahurangi National Park.

In the face of these threats, national non-government organisations gathered in Murchison to work together on a campaign to save our New Zealand wild rivers. Federation of Mountain Clubs, Fish & Game, Whitewater New Zealand, Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations, ECO, the Federation of Freshwater Anglers, and Forest & Bird have agreed to work together to bring public attention to the plight of these wild and remote rivers and to lobby for better political protection.

We will be seeking the support of Forest & Bird members across the country. Join our days on a wild river to help launch this very important campaign. Mokihinui is among the best and most significant of our wild rivers, but it is far from the only one at risk.

Mokihinui River

The Mokihinui is the third-largest river on the West Coast, and is ranked 7th in New Zealand for natural values. It nestles below the western shoulder of Kahurangi National Park and drains the uplands of the Lyell, Radiant, Allen, Glasgow and Matiri Ranges. It meanders across flats before plunging through a steep gorge to emerge in the Tasman Sea on the West Coast. Its name means “big raft.”
Native species found on the river include blue duck (whio), long-finned eels, giant and short-jawed kokopu, while the surrounding forest includes beech, matai, miro, nikau, kahikatea, rata, kiekie, long-tailed bats, kiwi, weka, kereru and Powelliphanta giant snails.
Recreational use of the river includes rafting, kayaking, tramping, fishing, whitebaiting and sightseeing.
The main threat to the river is a proposal by Meridian Energy to build an 85-metre-high hydro dam, which would flood 330 hectares, destroying the natural river gorge and its surrounding native forests and wildlife.

Wild Rivers

The Wild Rivers campaign aims to:

• Preserve wild rivers forever with the same legal protection as national parks

• Protect the plants and animals living in and beside wild rivers

• Encourage local and regional government, the Department of Conservation and communities to preserve wild rivers

• Maintain high water quality in wild rivers

• Ensure wild rivers remain accessible to everyone

• Create a national energy strategy that will protect wild rivers

How you can help

• Write/ring/email Meridian Energy, PO Box 2454, Christchurch, 0800 496 501, hydro.info@meridianenergy.co.nz urging them to abandon their plans to dam the Mokihinui.
• Write to the Minister of Conservation and/or West Coast Conservancy Office thanking them for upholding protection of the biodiversity, recreational assets and historical heritage of the Mokihinui River.

• Write to your local MP/s and newspapers about why wild rivers need protection and the need for energy conservation.

• Make submissions to your local council or DOC if you hear about threats to wild rivers.

• Switch off! Use less energy and help the the pressure off wild rivers.