I have seen Armageddon!

--> -->
I have seen Armageddon!

(At least where Canterbury’s sea-run trout and salmon fisheries fate will be decided)

by Rex N. Gibson


An environmental “Armageddon” will be fought on the bed of the Rakaia River south of Christchurch; the battle between the “forces of evil” vs common sense and common good. This river has had a mean flow at around 200+ cumecs in past decades, with floods over 2,000 cumecs being common, and over 5,500 cumecs being reached every couple of years. This flow, and the floods, produced the most iconic of the country’s braided river beds.

The general public saw Rakaia’s unique value as a phenomenon worth preserving, and the National Water (Rakaia River) Conservation Order (NWCO) was put in place in 1988. As a result this pristine environment, with its flourishing wildlife and world famous salmon fishery, was preserved for generations to come – YEA RIGHT!!

In the last decade we saw classic post-war neo-Fascism intervene. Is that term too dramatic? You judge from this Wikipedia definition. Neo-Fascism = A system of government marked by centralization of authority, a capitalist economy subject to stringent governmental controls and suppression of opposition. Does this ring a bell?

Many people in Canterbury saw the removal of democratically elected councillors from Environment Canterbury, and their replacement by central government appointees, as exactly that (fascism)! The “nationalism” aspect of fascism was delineated as allegiance to dairying profit at any cost; including environmental. The primary concerns of recreational groups were of course in conflict with that; water flow and water quality.

As a consequence of ECan’s subjugation to their political masters, the combination of ECan, Trust Power, and the Central Plains Irrigation Scheme (CPIS) backers has found ways to get around the NWCO to such an extent that the river is now ecologically dead! Bold words, I think not? Their abstractions of water from this river are the same, to most New Zealanders, as mining in a national park. In July I spent some hours on the lower Rakaia, in the company of a fellow scientist, examining the downstream effects of recent attempts to circumvent the NWCO. We travelled by jet boat and then explored further on foot.

My contacts in the “ECO” community all seem to be horrified by what is happening in the Rakaia, and to its NWCO. It is interesting as to how many different concerns they have. Forest and Bird are particularly worried about the 73% of the country’s wry bills which live there (plus the endangered black bill gulls, black fronted terns and banded dotterels). The area has even drawn recognition for its avian fauna from Bird Life International.

Two views of the flattened Rakaia Riverbed desert flood plain;


Rafters and kayakers are concerned with the lower flows, salmon anglers with the significant increases in water temperature downstream of the off-take areas (salmon cannot tolerate water over 17 degrees, and shallower braids heat up quickly) and diversion of spawning rivers, trout fisherfolk with the damage to spawning streams near the North Branch, hut holders with the lagoon pollution from cattle, farmers from the rising river bed level, and so on.

All of these concerns can be traced back to the reduced water flows resulting from dairy irrigation off-takes and Trust Power’s manipulation of spawning rivers. The Rakaia hut-holders community have a unique concern. Low flows actually result in flooding of the land around the tidal lagoon. The river moves many tonnes of gravel to the sea each day under mean flows. When that level drops however, the force of the river is insufficient to open the mouth wide enough to let the river water out to the sea. As a result the lagoon backs up into the village and nearby farmland.

This is something that locals never experienced in past decades. They are also nervous, with photos to support their trepidations, about the Rakaia’s gravel bar. The lack of gravel being pushed out to sea has resulted in a steady lowering of the height of the bar between the lagoon and the open sea. Waves are crashing right over far more often than ever before. If the sea breaks through the whole coast line north of that point will be opened to significant erosion; probably including Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. Can you see ECan, Trust Power, and the CPIS lining up to pay compensation?

We waded across braid after braid in the lower Rakaia. They were devoid of life; smothered.

Is this the environmental Apocalypse? Definitions: (1) a prophetic revelation, especially concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil. (2) Any universal or widespread destruction or disaster. It all sounds very “biblical”. I guess my forced attendance at bible class all those years ago is showing through.

In the Hebrew Old Testament the ‘end of the age’ saw images of the judgment of the wicked and the glorification of those who were given righteousness before God (read “environment”?). They await the final judgment. The wicked will then be consigned to eternal suffering in the fires where the Kings of Judah sacrificed some of their children by fire. Are the “wicked” the ECan appointees and their hired hands? Were the “children” being sacrificed here our environmental values?

According to the New Testament, Armageddon is the prophesied location of a gathering of armies for a battle during the end times, variously interpreted as either a literal or a symbolic location. From an environmental perspective the Rakaia situation is shaping up to be an Armageddon.

Back to evidential things; under ECan’s watch over the last few years increased water extraction has meant that gravel build up has occurred along the river bed. The lower river had cut channels into this. Lupin, broom, and other legumes have flourished on these islands between the braids. These plants were “blamed” for the failure of the gravel to head out to sea; thus ignoring the effect of lower flows. To counter this “problem” mass use of chemical sprays (I am advised that glyphosate is the main culprit), by aerial methods reminiscent of Agent Orange defoliation in the Vietnam War, has turned the river bed into an ecological desert. Glyphosate and allied chemicals not only kill macro flora above ground but destroy the algae and phyto-plankton that normally occur under water. Say good bye to all the food chains there; and thus the fish (native and introduced) and bird life.

Silt smothered dried braid   

Silt smothered “in-river” stones

Today there are acres of dead lupin, etc., all across the river bed. They lie alongside a wide variety of decaying trees and shrubs that formerly held the banks of the river together. A slight pull easily lifts the dead plants from the ground. Therein lies another story; the need of neighbouring farmers to bull-doze artificial groynes to replace the once relatively stable banks. A process that locals believe went under the consenting radar. These groynes rarely outlast the next flood; yet another ecologically damaging folly. Where once clear channels and islands featured on the riverscape, we now have an almost flat flood plain. With the destruction of the flora we saw the rapid erosion of the rudimentary soil, often over 10 cms thick. It is very fine silt (snow flour) which has subsequently been spread across the whole width of the lower river bed. It forms a tarmac-like surface after a few Canterbury nor’westers. This bed is up to a kilometre wide.

Left: Scoured out river margin (Note: dead vegetation atop)

Acres of “nuked” vegetation;

Silt settles over the stones, especially when spread by the river’s “bank to bank” floods, and then sets like concrete when the flow drops. The silt suffocates all remnants of life. It has its parallels in the biblical plagues of the Old Testament; a proverbial “blight upon the land”

Our intrepid scientist’s craft;


Remains of bull-dozed groynes;

Are we the victims of incompetence layered on to greed? Are we who valued the special qualities of the Rakaia, and its NWCO, being treated like mushrooms? As my old aunt once said to a young pair peddling their brand of religion at the door “I believe in Armageddon! I believe Armageddon getting sick and tired of hearing people who peddle bullxxxx!”.

We found a few tributary spring creeks where aquatic life still existed. Under stones there were still caddis and other larvae, we even saw bullies and a couple of trout, however we found areas around the North Branch dying, for other disturbing reasons inexorably linked to the demise of the sea-run trout fishery; but that is a story for another article.