When it became clear in the 1970s that there were plans to develop hydroelectric dams on almost every large river in New Zealand, several outdoors groups set up the Wild and Scenic Rivers Committee.
They were concerned about the loss of wild water for scenic and recreational purposes, and the demise of unique habitat for wildlife such as whio (blue duck).
The committee argued that the law should not only allow water to be exploited, it should help safeguard it. In 1981 the government passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers amendment to the Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967, to ensure the wild and scenic values of a river were conserved.
In 1979, as a precursor to the Water and Soil Conservation Amendment Act 1981, the Minister of Works and Development and the Minister for the Environment adopted a set of policies to ensure the protection of rivers or sections of rivers which have outstanding wild, scenic or other natural characteristics.
In 1982 a draft of the national inventory of wild and scenic rivers was prepared to give effect to the joint ministerial policy statement. This draft was released for public comment and finalised in 1984.
In 1984, the Motu River, which flows through the Raukumara Forest Park in the Bay of Plenty, became the first river to be protected by a WCO. Since then, WCOs have been issued for 12 other rivers and two lakes (Lake Wairarapa and Lake Ellesmere).
The 1981 Amendment contemplated two levels of order – a National Water Conservation Order for water bodies that were nationally outstanding and a Local Water Conservation Notice for those that were regionally significant.
The RMA continued the previous water conservation law but in an amended form. The RMA established a single category of WCO, dropping the previous hierarchy of National Orders and Local Notices.
A WCO is the highest level of protection that New Zealand can afford to a body of freshwater. WCOs are described as the “National Parks of waterways,” and local councils must abide by WCO rules when considering resource consents that involve that waterway. A WCO prioritizes protecting any identified outstanding features such as fisheries, wildlife, Maori, cultural, recreational, wild and scenic or scientific values. WCOs exist in perpetuity, unless amended.
Some organisations that have applied for or supported WCOs
- Fish & Game NZ
- QEII Trust
- Forest & Bird
- Whitewater NZ
- Environmental Defence Society
- New Zealand Federation of Fresh Water Anglers