Rivers Talk Pulls A Crowd

WILL I EVER BE ABLE TO SWIM IN A RIVER? Sign carried by a young boy at a protest in Timaru, March 2017

Excellent session with Catherine Knight

By Roger Childs

The monthly Ministry of Culture and Heritage talks are always good, and are usually attended by 30-40 people.

However, the topic of rivers – wadeable, swimmable or just plain dreadful – touches a raw nerve in many folk.

Over 120 crowded into the new venue at the National Library last Wednesday, and they were not disappointed.

Catherine is an award winning author on the contentious subject of our waterways, and her Ravaged Beauty on the Manawatu has been followed up with a wider study of the nation’s rivers in New Zealand’s Rivers: An Environmental History.

Is environmental history valuable?

Catherine started out by answering this question.

She expressed the view that understanding what has happened to our landscapes in the past, especially about what we have lost and has been degraded, is crucial to making better decisions now and in the future.

Major concerns over what human activity was doing to the New Zealand environment were first voiced in the late 19th century. In 1902 The Scenery Protection Act was passed.

The loss of heritage was a worry, but with an eye on the tourist trade, aesthetically pleasing landscapes  like mountain ranges, lakes and native bush, were emphasized.

Rivers and swamps didn’t rate. The exceptions were the picturesque Avon and Whanganui (The New Zealand Rhine).

Utilitarian attitude to rivers

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rivers were mainly looked at in terms of economic value:

 ~  a basis for generating hydro electric power

~ a source of water for homes and industries

~ irrigation for farming.

As they were generally not suitable for shipping, rivers were valuable as DRAINS. An 1875 Act actually approved the use of waterways as sludge drains for the gold mining industry.

However, early in the 20th century, concerns were growing louder about the problems of depositing waste in rivers. Increased silting was a key reason for settlements being flooded, as happened in Wanganui in 1905 when the river overflowed its banks and washed through the town.

Government acts slowly

In the 1920’s a Commission on Rivers was set up and proposals were put for using diversions, straightening channels and riparian planting of trees to prevent flooding. However, finding the funds was always a problem when it came to getting action on the ground, and a 1926 proposal to straighten the Manawatu was deferred indefinitely.

The emphasis continued to be on the economic value of waterways, and more and more hydro dams were constructed as the 20th century unfolded. There was scant concern for Maori values, and the Waikato River dams resulted in the degradation of tangata whenua land and artifacts.

Recreational users make a fuss

Plenty of agitation from recrational users

Although anglers and Acclimitization Societies continue to express concerns about river  pollution and ill health, it was canoeists, white-water rafters and kayakers who had the most impact.

The 1970s were a watershed. Backed by the New Zealand Canoeists Association, the recreational users put a compelling case for particular rivers being spared the hydro development which had degraded the Waitaki, Clutha and Waitaki Rivers.

A strong argument was put to ensure that at the very least, the Motu, Buller and Whanganui be left in their natural state. In 1977 the Commission for the Environment set out proposals which became a Wild Rivers Amendment to existing legislation.

Big worries over the impact of farming

The intensification of pastoral farming had long been seen as a major factor in rising river pollution. The evidence was irrefutable, but National governments in particular, were reluctant to move against a sector which generally voted for them.

There was also a cultural perception that private landowners could do what they liked on their own territory. It was similar to the attitude towards the gold mining industry in the second half of the 19th century.

The damage farming was doing was signalled back in the 1980s when the issues of nitrates leaching into water ways and the dangers of continued draw-off of water were raised, however the government continued to encourage irrigation expansion and the spread of dairying into areas with drier climates.

In recent years however, public awareness of the damage pastoral farming is doing to rivers has increased.

A number of groups such as Fish and Game, Forest and Bird, conservation organisations and young people (including Kapiti College pupils), have been lobbying government and making submissions.

Can I safely swim in the river?

Absolutely not!

In February 2017 the government announced a policy to improve the quality of rivers, but it was greeted with derision in many circles and the cartoonists had a field day.

In Catherine’s view, short term profit and political expediency are endangering how rivers will be used by the children of today and their children.

She is appalled by the “spin” put out by government and departments, and feels that the public deserves to get all the facts.  An open, honest conversation is needed! Am I dreaming?

She also feels that there needs to be an attitudinal shift regarding the rights of private landowners. They should not be able to do what they like if they are damaging the wider environment.

We need to start making sacrifices for our children and their children.

She ended her fascinating talk with a slide of present day river pollution and an older one of people swimming in the Waikato River.

(“New Zealand’s Rivers” by Catherine Knight is published by Canterbury University Press, and can be purchased for $49.99.)

Catherine lives on the Kapiti Coast and there is a strong rumour that she may feature at forthcoming Friends of the Library session. Not to be missed!