Where have all the rivers gone,
long time passing?

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Where have all the rivers gone, long time passing?

 

The local newspaper, on the day of writing this, was again covering stories of Canterbury rivers that had, or were soon to, disappear.


I had driven on a mid-Canterbury road the day before and had seen three cases of farm paddock irrigators “washing” that road.


The song made popular in the 1960s by Peter, Paul and Mary, “Where have all the Flowers (Rivers?) Gone”, came to mind; more on that later. I had recently been at a meeting to set up an “ECO Hub” in Christchurch; a coming together of the region’s environmental groups. Freshwater issues were a significant part of the discussions at that meeting. The “ECO” community is becoming very concerned about Canterbury’s rivers. Yet another 1966 song came back, a Johnny Cash/John Hore (Grenell) hit (“I’ve been everywhere man”) when discussing which rivers; more on that later too.


The number of rivers we have lost, in Canterbury, is rarely appreciated by the general public. Fishermen know; because their Canterbury lowland fishery has virtually disappeared. And that is no bull (excuse the paronomasia)! When the rivers dry up, even if only for a few weeks, or even days, the key fauna and flora die. The macro flora, in particular, is the anchor on which most visible river-based life forms exist.


Every river lost is a recreational site lost. My generation were fortunate enough to be able to kayak, float on tyre tubes, sail boats in the shallows, fossick for blackberries and mushrooms, find lizards, check out the river’s bigger invertebrates, etc, whilst our “elders” fished. Those Canterbury rivers were even “swimmable”. Today’s children are denied that.


Many lowland Canterbury river beds are now just bare gravel, even when water is flowing. This makes them inhospitable for cocabullies, trout, eels, whitebait, koura and a variety of other native fish. Despite the anti-trout propaganda of some “conservationists” the young trout, etc, are important food sources for eels, wading birds and cormorants (shags).


I recall the words of the Spiritual Leader of the Native American Winnemem Wintu people, Caleen Sisk-Franco. In their pilgrimage to Canterbury in 2010, to visit the New Zealand salmon in the Rakaia River, she stated that the salmon [& trout] were the “canaries in the mine equivalent” in determining the health of a river. Her delegation were here to see, and apologise to, the offspring of the salmon that once ruled their way of life on the McLeod River in California; the source of our Canterbury salmon stocks. It was an emotional event. Damming of the McLeod River, and irrigation off-takes, had destroyed the parent salmon population last century. Only their descendants in Canterbury survive.

 

Where have all the (Canterbury) rivers gone? (with appropriate apologies)

Where have all the rivers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the rivers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the rivers gone?
Gone to empty aquifers everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Where have all the aquifer waters gone, long time passing?
Where have all the aquifer waters gone, long time ago?
Where have all the aquifer waters gone?
Irrigation drained them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the irrigated waters gone, long time passing?
Where have all the irrigated waters gone, long time ago?
Where has all the irrigated waters gone?
Sprayed on the paddocks in the sun.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where did all that water go, long time passing?
Where did all that water go, long time ago?
Where did all that the water go?
Nearly half evaporated in the sun.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where did the other half go, long time passing?
Where did the other half go, long time ago?
Where did the other half go?
Ninety percent used in rye grass growth,
Ten percent in cow effluent,
Less than 1 percent in milk solids
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where did all the profit go, long time passing?
Where did all the profit go, long time ago?
Where did all that profit go?
Gone to the corporate farmers, all that dough.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where did all the effluent go, long time passing?
Where did all the effluent go, long time ago?
Where did all that effluent go?
Gone to pollute the aquifers, all of it.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where has all the pollution gone, long time passing?
Where has all the pollution gone, long time ago?
Where did the pollution go?
Stored to poison generations yet to come.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

As the song above suggests the abstraction is not directly from the rivers in most cases, although the Rangitata Diversion Race, and similar schemes from other Canterbury rivers sourced in the Southern Alps, take the equivalent of the normal flow of the Waimakariri or Rangitata rivers. The removal of water from aquifers which are maintained by the lowland rivers, for irrigation, automatically triggers aquifer replenishment from those rivers.


We are “water mining” the shallow aquifers of the plains. The deeper cold water from the Southern Alps is unable to move upward quick enough and they are replenished with the warmer river water. Therein lies another area of concern for the health of our soil ecosystems to be explored at a later date.


The USGS (US Government Department of the Interior) Water Science School has done considerable work on the effectiveness of irrigation schemes, and estimates that an average of 35% of irrigated water is lost to evaporation. In Canterbury the rain shadow effect, foehn winds (especially in El Nino years), and its geography, means that the Canterbury evaporation loss is highly likely to be well above average. The higher the water pressure the higher the rate of evaporation, with the water cannon type irrigators being the worst offenders.


Corporate “industrial” dairying has seen the demise of both the family farm and the lowland rivers. The ownership of the health of waterways now lies with corporate investors often living in remote locations.
In 2016 the Stuff website ran the headline “Irrigators are Canterbury’s biggest rule-breakers”. Using ECAN’s own data they found that nearly 20% of all irrigation consent holders with permission to take water, were significantly breaking the rules. Hundreds were caught breaking these rules! Many were either taking too much water, or taking water during a restricted period.


Clearly the monitoring body, ECAN, was a “toothless tiger” in this role. In addition to water abstraction, many agricultural discharges were recorded. One consent holder, of the 24,000, in every eleven, was found to be significantly non-compliant.


Discharge of (mainly) dairy effluent into waterways further compounds the lack of healthy freshwater ecosystems in the Canterbury Plains. It was the stimulus for Fish and Games’ widely reported “Dirty dairying” campaign a decade ago.


The regional council (ECAN) monitored only 16% of the consents in 2016. About 40% of these were monitored by a site visit. This means that only 7% of all consents were checked in person! An ECAN spokesperson described them as “higher-risk consent holders”, enough said.


I have been around long enough to remember which lowland Canterbury rivers were once fishable and swimmable, many up until the 1990s, but today only grow land weeds or toxic algae.


Those listed below either dry up for part of the year, thus killing their fauna and flora, or drop so low that their pools become eutrophic, resulting in toxic algal blooms in the summer and autumn. All have been fishable and swimmable in the past. The river flow figures are in cubic metres per second.

 

Canterbury Plain’s “Lost” Lowland Fishing Rivers
(Rivers from Hurunui to Waitaki – Figures from ECAN’s website)


Name                        (current mean flow,          Notes
                                    21 Feb’17, in m3/s)
Waipara                   0.16                                 Dry at SH1
Ashley  (SH1)           n.a.                                  Regularly dry below Rangiora
Cust                        0.4                                    Primarily now a straight drain
Halswell                   0.3                                   Severe silt loading
Selwyn (Coes’)        0.003                                Eutrophic
Hororata                  0.17                                 Dry below the township
Hawkins                   0                                     Grossly over consented
Okuku                      n.a.                                  Toxic algae
Irwell                        0                                   Former major spawning stream
Pudding Hill               0.4                                   Ashburton tributary
Bowyers Stream       0.6                                   Ashburton tributary
Taylors                     0.7                                   Ashburton tributary
South Branch            5.7                                   Ashburton tributary
Ashburton (SH1)       4.1                                   (pollution notice in place)
Hinds (SH1)              0                                      Dead....RIP
Orari                        2.7                                   Dry in January
Waihi                        0.18                                 Temuka tributary
Kakahu                     0.03                                  Hae Hae Te Moana tributary 
Hae Hae Te Moana   0.14                                  Waihi tributary
Temuka                    1.8                                     
Ohapi                        0.9                                   Former classic trout stream
Opihi (SH1)                3.3               9.2 cum/s where it emerges from foothills
Tengawai (Cave)        0.4                          Estim 0.1 at confluence with Opihi
Pareora (Huts)           1.0                Supplies much of Timaru’s domestic water
Otaio                          0.2                                   No visible flow at SH1
Makikihi (SH1)             0                
Waihao                       0.6          Estuary supplemented from Waitaki irrigation


The TOTAL current flow of these 26 lowland rivers in February 2017 is thus only 18.1 cubic metres per second at the measuring points (one m3/s is about a bathtub full).  I have allowed for the doubling up of the Ashburton tributaries figures.

The minimum figure should be in the 110 – 150m3/sec range to allow healthy river ecosystems to survive.


Only about 18 bath tubs full, per second, are thus flowing across all of the Canterbury Plains in the lowland rivers. How many fish, or swimmers, can that cater for?


That cumulative total is almost the same as the normal summer flow of each of the: Ahuriri (McKenzie Country), Lower Wairau (Marlborough), or the Mararoa (Southland) rivers. It is only 25% of the regular flow of the Rangitata or the Waimakariri, or just 50% of the summer flow of the Hurunui or the Mataura rivers. All those rivers are sourced back in the Southern Alps.


This river water depletion is not just a 2017 event. El Nino is just a “blip” in the trend. It has been happening for a couple of decades.


Whole freshwater ecosystems have either been destroyed or are under imminent threat on the Canterbury Plains. These low water flows result in elevated river water temperatures which create inhospitable environments for most freshwater organisms. Trout, and many other species, normally die if the water temperature exceeds 20 degrees.

 

The smaller the body of water, the more it heats up.


Biodiversity has given way to the monocultures in a massive and deadly way.


Irrigation in Canterbury is not new. It was always considered necessary to make better use of the land for crop and wool production, but the price, since industrial dairying moved in, has been far greater than it needs to be. The social and environmental effects will be inherited by our children and their children. The cost of habitat restoration in the future will be “astronomical”.


The Canterbury situation is not unique; so why have we not learnt? The Colorado River, once capable of cutting out the Grand Canyon, failed to reach the sea for 20 years because of excessive irrigation draw off. Drained aquifers have led to ground collapses across the mid-west of the USA and no new federal funded irrigation projects were approved there from the 1970s into this century.


The mentality that any water which flows into the sea is wasted seems to dominate the current headlong rush to spray it irresponsibly over the land and into the atmosphere. This attitude ignores all the basic values of biodiversity, understanding of the dynamics of freshwater (and soil) ecosystems, and the concept that the water belongs to all of us.

 

The irrigators’ theme song “I’ve drained everywhere man!” (once again, with appropriate apologies)

Well I was driving along a straight Canterbury road
On a lorry laden with an irrigator’s load
When I spied a stream flowing through the land
So I asked the cockie if he wanted to make a few grand
He asked me if I’d irrigated such a flow before for gain
And I said, Listen mate, I’ve drained every stream across this plain.
Cos, I’ve drained everywhere man, I’ve drained everywhere man
I’ve drained everywhere,
I’ve cleared the rivers bare man
Saturated the Canterbury air man
Of profit I’ve had my share man
I do it without a care man
I’ve drained, here, there, everywhere
I’ve drained everywhere.

I’ve drained:
Pareora, Temuka, Waipara, Hakataramea, Hae Hae Te Moana,
Omarama, Hororata, Waihao, Otematata, Kaituna, Opuha,
Bowyers, Taylor’s, Hawkins, Porters, Hinds,
Ohapi, Opihi, Tengawai, Waihi, Hurunui,
Hope, Makikihi, Kaiapoi, Omihi, Waimakariri,
Halswell, Irwell, Pudding Hill, Ashley,
Selwyn, Otaio, Okuku, Cust,
Rakaia, Rangitata, Waiau, Maerewhenua,
Kakahu, Orari, Ashburton, Styx, now they are all nix, cos I’ve drained everywhere.
I’ve drained everywhere man,
Cleared the rivers bare man,
Saturated the Canterbury air man
Of profit I’ve had my share man,
I have done it without a care man,
I’ve drained, here, there, everywhere
I’ve drained everywhere.

My use of these “rewritten” songs may seem quite flippant but a fresh look is urgently required in how Canterbury uses the resource that (in law) we all own; its water. Irrigation practices currently used in the dry land dairying on the Canterbury Plains are incredibly inefficient uses of this resource.


Mid-Canterbury people got very upset when a bottling plant wanted to export “their water” to China and elsewhere. That plant would have used only the equivalent of one dairy farm! Where did they think the dairy products go? And how much water does local dairying use? Do they have a patch over one eye?


The Waiology/Sciblogs website (Royal Society of New Zealand) states that New Zealand irrigators use 4,707,000,000 cubic metres of fresh water each year, or 13 million cubic metres per day. That is 44% of all of the country’s total consumptive uses; 68% of all water allocations are in Canterbury.


Waiology quotes AgResearch who determined that, in Canterbury, one litre of milk (1kg of milk)) requires 1,084 litres of water; the rest (1,083L) being “lost” or “used” in plant and animal respiration and growth, etc. They use the measure called Fat & Protein Corrected Milk (FPCM) which equates one kg of FPCM with one litre.


I spoke recently to an educator who works across 20+ schools in North Canterbury with the salmon in schools programme. He works with children from year 2 through to year 13. He stated all pupils, even the six year olds, understood the meaning of “sustainability”. It appears it is the decision making generation that ignores this concept.
Canterbury’s fresh water managers sadly and urgently need to adopt the same Mission Statement as Te Runanga O Ngai Tahu: Mo tatou, a, mo ka uri ka muri ake nei, “For us and our children after us”. Like the Winnemem Wintu did in 2010, we should collectively be apologising to Canterbury’s lowland rivers and their fish for condoning their demise.

Rex N. Gibson QSM
M.Sc.(Distinction), Dip.Ed.Man., Dip.Tch.