The Rakaia River, a public waterway of once outstanding trout, salmon and native populations with associated wildlife values, has been gutted by politicians and bureaucrats , says the New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers (NZFFA).
Aggravating the losses is that the river was supposedly protected by a National Water Conservation Order, (NWCO), akin to a National Park status says NZFFA president Dr Peter Trolove.
“The sad reality is that the outstanding Rakaia River characteristics, the hard fought 1988 NWCO sought to protect, have now either been greatly diminished or lost,” he says.
Dr Trolove said the original 1988 Rakaia NWCO introduced to protect the outstanding values was amended in 2013.
“Since then, those values protected by the original (1988) National Water Conservation Order have been lost,” he said.
The outstanding landscapes are annually aerially sprayed with toxic herbicide, the outstanding fisheries and recreational fisheries have dramatically declined, a keystone species of native fish has become virtually extinct, five species of endangered birds adapted to this iconic braided river have seen their population counts halve, and the “protected” outstanding jet boating is much diminished.
The detrimental effects have rippled further. Low lying properties at the Rakaia Huts are flooded with increased frequency due to sustained low flows allowing the river mouth to partially close. This results in localised flooding prior to the mouth being breached when flood events occur.
In 2013, the Rakaia NWCO was amended to enable the Lake Coleridge Project – a scheme to allow Trustpower to divert up to 40% of the Rakaia catchment into Lake Coleridge where it is “stored” before being sold to two large irrigation schemes covering 100,000 hectares of Central Canterbury.
Dr Trolove said it was ironic that while the irrigation schemes from the 2013 NWCO amendment were hailed as an economic success, the important detail showed its monetary benefits were dubious.
The cost has been NZ$400 million dollars of tax and ratepayer subsidies with 360 shareholders in Central Plains Water Ltd owing the Construction Bank of China and other Australian banks around NZ$360 million. The security for these loans are the consents “owned by the people of Canterbury” held in trust by the Central Plains Water Trust, whose annual administration fees of NZ$18,000 is paid by Selwyn District ratepayers.
“The irrigators annual water charge of NZ$958/ha makes the irrigation scheme uneconomic for all but the most intensive (and polluting) forms of farming.”
Human Health Threat
Detrimental outcomes with human health and environmental added to the costs.
“Tragedies were pollution of the unconfined aquifer underlying the irrigated land with nitrate and cattle associated faecal pathogens threatening the health of rural well owners and making Te Waihora (Ellesmere) one of New Zealand’s most polluted lakes,” explained Dr Trolove.
Canterbury has one of the highest bowel cancer rates in the world, with a Danish study of 2.7 million people showing a very probable direct link between high nitrate levels and the cancer.
Dr Trolove said NZFFA had been working with other organisations such as Fish and Game, NZ Salmon Anglers and others on options to restore the Rakaia River.
Fish and Game have elected to work with the Environmental Defence Society to seek advice from the Environment Court as to who is accountable for NWCOs.
“The Federation is interested in what Fish and Game will do once the Environment Court has ruled on the accountabilities of various cabinet ministers, government departments, and regional government,” said Dr Trolove.
He said in addition to the deepening concerned about the present state of the Rakaia River, was anger by a recently released internal report revealing Ecan’s lack of compliance oversight of irrigation abstractions from the Rakaia River, including Trustpower’s “creative” water budgeting for water “stored” then on sold from Lake Coleridge.
“It seems there has been no compliance monitoring by Ecan who have been distancing themselves from this damming internal report conducted over two and a half years by a staff hydrologist. A report which was internally reviewed twice, externally peer reviewed once, and prompted the resignation of the staff member concerned when he refused to alter his report for the convenience of his Ecan managers.”
The NZFFA-led team resolved to seek a meeting with David Parker the Minister for the Environment, as it seemed clear that Ecan is unable or unwilling to give effect to the Rakaia NWCO but government response had been non-existent.
Despite follow up emails after the initial approach to the Minister, there has been no reply.
“It’s all so frustrating,” said Dr Trolove. “So recently NZFFA resolved to repeat our request in the form of an OIA request which at least will ensure a reply.”
With limited financial resources and no confidence in Ecan, NZFFA’s last resort may be to seek an amendment to the Rakaia River NWCO, which is clearly not fit for purpose in its present form.
Dr Trolove said there is very strong supporting evidence of the consequences of excessive irrigation abstraction contained in an Ecan commissioned report by ex-NWIA fisheries scientist Dr Don Jellyman, prepared for Environment Canterbury January 2022.
The fate of the public’s Rakaia River is at the crossroads.
“Can this dire and deteriorating situation be reversed by shaming Ecan and Minister David Parker into giving effect to the Water Conservation Order or must concerned New Zealanders seek a new amendment to the National Water (Rakaia River) Conservation Order 1988?” he said.