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Illustration: Marcus Watson
Illustration: Marcus Watson

The Sunday EssayAugust 15, 2021

The Sunday Essay: A voice for the river

Illustration: Marcus Watson
Illustration: Marcus Watson

Central Otago’s Manuherekia River is dying. Do enough people care?

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Marcus Watson.


I wake before dawn thinking of the river.

Have I done enough?

This morning I make my submission to Judge Borthwick at the Environment Court. I want to bring her the Manuherekia, in all its wildness and betrayal, in its ripple and sing and silted, algaed shallows. My words are printed out, three copies, and there’s a USB key with the slide presentation. But will the Manuherekia become real to the judge?

I go out to the cold dining room, open my computer and begin again. I don’t have the smell of the river. I don’t have enough senses. Facts and events, but not the river. I type, cut and paste, print everything out again, adjust the slides. Run out the door to the car, almost late.

Security men in front of the court room search our bags. Then the x-ray machine probes them. “Because the judge is in situ,” one of the guards says. Outside the hills are gold, the poplars blazing yellow, the sky blue.

At the Lindis River hearing, to set a minimum flow, the court was full of irrigators, their lawyers and consultants, regional councillors and their scientists and lawyers. For the Manuherekia River hearing, would my neighbouring landowners be there? Would I have to present my argument to give more water to the river in front of those who let me ramble across their hills, who stack wood beside me at community fundraising events, who depend on water for their livelihood, as I do not?

But the court is almost empty for the environmentalists to present.

My hand on the bible. “Do you swear by almighty God that the evidence you’re about to give is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”

I do.

Illustration: Marcus Watson

The story of what humans have done to the Manuherekia begins in the 1860s.

Otago Witness, 25 February 1865:

“Since my last, nothing much of importance has transpired here, if I except the completion of the two races to German Gully…perhaps the finest work of the kind in the province…It commences at the foot of the Hawkdun Ranges, and after running some twenty miles, it reaches the workings immediately above the township. From thence to German Gully is a distance of about three miles, and in this length a work of great magnitude and expense has just been completed.”

These works of “great magnitude and expense”, finely built races over much of Central Otgao, used the power of the rivers and tributaries, especially the Manuherekia River, for sluicing the goldfields. In time, those mining permits for water became irrigation permits. There was no knowledge in those days of how depleting the river flow affected the ecological systems of the river. Now, the new national Fresh Water Management Act states the first priority for water management must be given to the river – Te Mana O Te Wai – to the life force of the river.

The Goldfields Act 1862 established the priority system for water rights, based on “superiority of right” determined by priority of occupation (by white colonial settlers).

When mining became less profitable in the 1920s, the Public Works Department acquired the mining rights and coordinated the development of community irrigation schemes, including the building of Falls Dam as an unemployment relief project. With government restructuring, by 1989 all the major Central Otago irrigation schemes were sold to local farmer cooperatives and corporations for either nothing or $1.

Regional councils came into being with the Resource Management Act (RMA) of 1991. “Once the government set up the act, everyone taking water from anywhere had to have a resource consent,” says Marian Hobbs, former minister for the environment, former recent chair and now council member of the Otago Regional Council (ORC). “Central Otago people argued they had goldminers’ rights to take as much water as they wanted. A special exemption was granted in the RMA to the Central Otago farmers to have 30 years of unconsented water rights. Those 30 years end this year.” On October 1, to be precise.

Thirty years for the ORC to monitor the river, measure the river, study the effects of human use on the river, and 30 years for the farmers to transition from farming with permits that over allocate the river, to farming under a consent that takes the environment into consideration.

Only this didn’t happen.

Now the council must set a minimum flow for the river before expiring permits can be reissued as long-term consents. And because the ORC didn’t do the required science over the last 30 years, a plan change is before the Environment Court. Plan Change 7 (PC7) is how the deemed permits (mining privileges) change to resource consents. The new consents will be enacted under the new Land and Water Regional Plan (LWRP), which is currently being written, to be notified by 2023. The plan change also establishes a requirement for short duration water consents (no more than six years), until the Land and Water Plan, giving priority to sustainable freshwater management, is operative.

My photo of the river above Falls Dam is on the big screen at the Environment Court. The water stupendous in its froth and power and clarity, the surge of it over the boulders. I remember those hours and days of walking the river; climbing out of bed at dawn to pull on dry socks and wet boots, driving to the river, sliding into the water, a whole day ahead to place one foot safely after another. Nine days of walking the Manuherekia, from its source in the mountains to the confluence with the Clutha/Mata-Au, repeating sections of the river at a low flow, as well as walking much of the tributaries Ida Burn, Rocks Creek and Dunstan Creek.

So that I could stand like this, telling the truth as I saw it.

“For the first few hours of walking,” I say to the court, “the river accompanies us with its tumbling and rushing in long stretches of ripples. The air is mineral scented from the wet rocks and water sparks. The rocks are slabby sandstone and rounded river boulders. On the banks: tussock, briar rose, thistle, bugloss, woolly mullein and rushes. In the warm air their fragrance rises.”

How does the way the Manuherekia is used compare with other regions in New Zealand? According to the Skelton Report, commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment, “it is estimated that 75% of the available flow in the Manuherekia River is taken for irrigation and stock water. This compares with about 25% in other regions of New Zealand.”

Says Hobbs: “For years ORC decided that Otago was exceptional and outside the National Policies and Standards set for water and air. The ORC of that time, under Graeme Martin, pursued effects-based management of resources rather than setting rules. But they did not monitor those effects. They didn’t report who was degrading the rivers. Ngāi Tahu were never included in this, never talked with or consulted.”

“It’s a big fail that ORC and deemed permit holders have not dealt with the issue of the expiry of deemed permits despite three decades to do so,” says another recent ORC councillor, Alexa Forbes. “I understand that people who use water from the rivers have literally banked on that water, and have invested heavily in ways of being efficient with water use. But the ORC and the people of Otago need to work together to deliver the government directions which are designed to do what we have collectively failed to do – protect and preserve the health of our waterways.”

What the ORC did do, instead of helping farmers plan for the coming new water regulations, was encourage them to invest in high-cost irrigation schemes, promising if they did, the ORC would let them keep their water rights at the same level.

“The irrigation development we undertook was put in with confidence that in 2021…we would be successful in securing our existing water,” an irrigator submitted to the court.

“Since 2008 ORC have assured us that as long as we used water efficiently, we could expect to have our deemed permits replaced by RMA water consents,” another irrigator writes. “It’s only in the past three or four years that ORC have gone back on their word.”

The costs of the irrigation schemes (sometimes in their millions), now lead to stress and despair, “a huge weight of hopelessness” and sleepless nights about the ability to repay debt. Its sobering reading the submissions for the stress on individual farmers. Yet the lack of understanding of the natural world’s needs is bewildering:

“Farmers have managed their irrigation for more than 100 years with very little trouble. It is not broken – what are we fixing??”

“Irrigated land in our area currently sells for between $ 15,000 – $20,000/ha compared to dry land properties which sell for $2,000 – $8,000/ha.”

“If you want to swim,” writes one submitter to the ORC consultation on the Manuherekia, “go to the pool.”

The last time I stood up to give a public talk about walking the length of the Manuherekia, a woman in the middle row began to cry, and came up to me afterwards sobbing and angry. I thought my words had somehow touched her with the sacredness of the river and reached out to hug her.

“Do you think it’s all our fault,” she said, “that the river is ruined? I’m an irrigator. Are you blaming us?”

I didn’t know what to say. I understood where her tears were coming from: the finance sheets, the interest bills, the pivot irrigators in the paddock, the grass that needed water, everything a construct on a society that encouraged them to do that very thing. Progress, it’s called. Development. But I was talking for the river, not against the river users.

“For generations,” the Kāi Tahu ki Otago Natural Resource Management Plan 2005 states, “our elders struggled for recognition of their values and beliefs in respect of the interconnectedness of people, their actions and the health of the environment.”

“The prevailing resource management paradigm in Otago,” Ngā Rūnanga states in their submission to the Environment Court, “is predicated on water being regarded as freely available for use and as a commodity, rather than being valued in its own right and being made available for the instream needs of waterbodies. This commoditisation and consumption paradigm, and the desire for this to continue to prevail over other values, has been apparent from the evidence and legal submissions of a number of parties.”

“I expected to get consents for longer than six years,” an irrigator submits to the court. “I didn’t ever think that ORC would deny us less water than we’d already been using.”

We are many voices.

It’s not so much who’s accountable, but what can be done now? How can people get through this?

Illustration: Marcus Watson

“I have seen the river at its beginnings,” I tell the judge. “At the tributaries falling silver from the mountains.”

“Where do you think we should go?” the judge asks me, “so that we can see the river.”

I tell her how beautiful it is in the higher reaches, beyond the Loop Road Bridge at St Bathans.

I was filmed there in late summer by members of the organisation Choose Clean Water. We stood on a rock jutting into the river’s flow, so that as we spoke about the river, it rippled and curved into a wave beside our feet.

“The forest, waters, the life supported by them, together with natural phenomena such as the mist, wind and rocks, possess a mauri or life force,” write Kāi Tahu ki Otago.

We feel that.

When we finish talking, the young woman who’d interviewed me says, shall we swim? We lay down our clothes and lower ourselves into the deep flow. Blue skies, tussock covered hills, and river. No need for words anymore. Just full attention to the sensation of coolness and force.

I greet you, river.

I know you, river.

“The environment is alive,” writes Richard Powers in his book The Overstory. “A fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other.”

“None of this is easy,” the Environment Court judge says. “Holding the whole of the environment and the community together. It’s extraordinarily difficult.”

Another slide for the court. The river sluggish, not even the depth of my boots.

“Today,” I read, “when we walk the Manuherekia at a one cumec flow, less than half the flow of the last walk, the wonder has gone. There is no magic about the next corner or the next ripple pulling at our legs. When we come to the Galloway intake, two thirds of the already depleted river has been shunted off to the side by bulldozed banks for the irrigation intake. We know it is two thirds, because the hydrologist who is waist deep measuring cross sections of the channel, tells us. Over to the right, the main stem of the Manuherekia limps on. It is a stream I step across in two steps. (All the consent asks of the irrigation company is that a river 15cm deep and 30 cm wide is left for the public’s recreation.)”

When I read submissions saying society needs us to keep using the river to this low level, I feel despair. I think of how this planet we live on is in such a precarious state young people protest for the right to live beyond the next 20 years. I try to understand how people frame stories to themselves in such a way it justifies what’s destructive for the natural world:

because we’ve done this for a hundred years,

because we’ve done this for generations,

because we were told that we could,

because we believed we had the right…

And also, because we believe we help, because we love our families and want to give to them, because we love our land and want to care for it the best we know how, because we are doing our best and have tried to do our best…

That narrative too. It comes from the heart and is authentic.

And still the river ebbs silted and shallow. And still the filamentous algae coats the rocks and pebbles, and still the temperature rises, and still the small living creatures, whose place in all of this we do not understand, still they gasp and are smothered.

It’s not a change in systems that’s needed but a change in the paradigm of the way we view and practice agriculture. Not the “commoditisation and consumption paradigm” as the Ngā Rūnanga submission puts it, but one that honours the “spiritual, cultural and physical importance of maintaining or restoring the mauri of land and waterbodies”.

The person now chairing the ORC through the new freshwater regime is beef and sheep farmer Andrew Noone.

“Challenging conversations with our communities are required as the status quo is no longer acceptable,” he says. “These conversations need to be inclusive, in good faith and future focused.”

What could this future look like?

“We no longer can rely on key competencies and commodities that have built the agricultural industry,” writes Helen France, in her final report as Kellogg Scholar 2020. “Growing alternative proteins for the agri-industry in New Zealand,” she said, “could be one of the many opportunities to grow whilst maintaining environmental standards and increasing social and cultural acceptance.” (Plant-based crops use less water and inputs and do not harm animals.)

“I don’t want them to lose their land,” ORC councillor Hobbs says of the irrigators. “I want them to use their land differently. Grow different crops. If I were a farming leader, I’d say this is what we can’t do, this is what we could do. There are so many exciting things.”

High value crops the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is looking at to fill or augment the space of animal agriculture in New Zealand: alfalfa, amaranth, peas, millet, hemp, barley, oats, potato, walnut, wheat.

A crop that shows significant potential, MPI writes, is alfalfa. Alfalfa (lucerne) is grown all over Central Otago. It is a deep-rooted crop that does not need irrigation, and during any bike ride in summer the air is sweet with the perfume of its purple flowers. The essential amino acid profile of alfalfa is very similar to that of soy, hence the excitement about the possibilities. Lucerne latte anyone?

But we don’t much hear anyone talking about the benefits of the industries that could supersede intensive animal agriculture and protect farmers with reduced irrigation. We don’t hear it from Federated Farmers. We don’t hear it from protesting farmers. We certainly don’t hear it from the Central Otago mayor, or some of the regional councillors.

An economic assessment report from our district council was touted by the mayor as saying restoring the health of the Manuherekia River would cost the community millions of dollars in lost earnings. Yet he failed to consider the fact that farmers could transition away from practices with high irrigation needs to new crops that are more environmentally sustainable, even though the report clearly signals this.

It is this distressing silence from our rural leaders on the possibilities ahead, combined with the backlash against new freshwater requirements, that appals.

Those who love the river stand up for the river – against the power of councils, lobbyists, businesspeople, and irrigators.

Standing up for the river has a cost to us as well.

The cost of being despised in your own rural community.

The cost of being threatened with a defamation suit by the deputy chairman of the regional council for calling the councillors out on inaction.

The cost of being labelled extremists in the media by some regional councillors and others.

The emotional cost of sadness and despair when you see the river struggling.

The alienation that results for calling out what needs to be called out.

But what hope have we got for the world if we don’t begin to live within ecological boundaries?

Up there, looking towards the mountains, you can understand, however briefly, the great cycle of life; of rain and gurgling tributaries, of boulders and shingle, the power of wind over all this, the clouds and how things fall, up in the far reaches, where humans have not yet bent their will over the land. Where the water runs as pure and clear as it was meant to, mineral rich and crystalline.

I don’t know if the Otago Regional Council will finally stand up for the river. I don’t know if the Environment Court judge will grant respite for the river with Plan Change 7. Will they all take that step, not just into improvement but into a new paradigm of thinking: nature first, then we all thrive.

One Sunday we clamber down again to the river beyond the Loop Road Bridge. The water is bronze coloured, running noisy and strong, burbling and clattering. I pick my way along the rocks next to the water’s flow. Mostly greywacke rocks, from the mountains, but now and then there are sarcen rocks, as tall and wide as hips, cream, bronze and satiny pink. To glide a hand over one is to feel the fineness of burnished crystal from 60 million years of compression and addition. Sun, rain, ice and the inexorable grinding process of surge and disruption. In the river, the boulders shine like gold.


Keep going!