Conservation update: Canterbury WCOs and Mokihinui dam

Glenn Murdoch and Tony Ward-Holmes summarise the latest disastrous developments threatening whitewater including the undermining of Water Conservation Orders in Canterbury and the granting of consents for a dam on the Mokihinui River.

Well, what can we say? These words are being written after the worst few days for NZ kayaking since Lake Dunstan was filled in the early 90's. It started off with the National Government passing, under urgency in the final sitting before the Easter holiday, the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill into law. The bill included a clause that effectively threw the Hurunui WCO into the rubbish bin. Then on the first day back after the holiday, it was announced that consents would be granted for Meridian Energy’s application to build a dam that inundates the pristine Mokihinui River, north of Westport.

These two events, even taken individually, are a massive blows to our ongoing struggle to preserve our remaining whitewater resources. Our current Government appears hell-bent on doing whatever it takes to allow developers to take advantage of our rivers, not to mention the rest of the conservation estate, for short-term economic gain. For a great overview of some of the issues, albeit already out of date, check out the article “Cry me a river” by Mike White in the April issue of North and South magazine. His second sentence “An ugly room, a scattering of people, the fate of a river” says it all really. And with the current competition for water, loosening of regulation, and scramble for growth at all costs, the decisions made in many of these hearings are not in favour of rivers.

Speaking of growth, one thing we’ve never understood is why growth is measured in things like number of TVs per capita and how much uranium can be hacked out of a mountainside. How about growth in number of swimming holes? Growth in number of cities with clean air? Growth of fish stocks? Growth in opportunities for wild adventures? Growth in number of clean rivers? Tourists to this country often ask if they can drink the tap-water. They don’t even think to ask if they can drink out of rivers. We can still drink out of many rivers, but from an ever- reducing number.

Robin Rutter-Baumann on Mokihinui River

Mokihinui Dam

We fought long and hard. The Commissioners listened to us, that much is evident in their decision, but they ignored us. To quote them, “With respect to the loss of white water recreation opportunities, we acknowledge that the impacts on river rafting and kayaking cannot be mitigated. Nevertheless we have not given this much weighting. This is a s.7(c) matter and, in having regard to it, we found there would be a net positive effect on recreation since the evidence presented to us showed that the proposal would provide a more diverse range of opportunities to a much wider group of people.”

This decision was despite the Commissioners clearly stating that they considered the loss of the river to kayakers to be a significant effect. The Commissioners have decided that the loss of the river to kayakers doesn’t matter, because the added recreational opportunities in the form of mountain biking, day walking, jet boating, lake fishing and sea kayaking on the lake more than compensate the community at large. By the same logic, an application to build a gondola, rotating restaurant and convention centre on the top of Mt Cook would fly through the consent process, no problem.

Just down the road it is worth mentioning the Stockton Plateau Hydro Scheme, which had previously been granted consent. Stockton is a very different animal from the Mokihinui, it is probably the greenest, most sustainable and most efficient hydro-project ever proposed in this country. As well as generating a lot of power from a very small amount of water, it would also clean up the Ngakawau River by diverting all the mining run-off from the plateau. Their application for consent was supported by Whitewater NZ, Forest & Bird, the local chapter of the Green Party and many other organisations. Along with the Arnold, it would supply all the power required by West Coast and makes a mockery of Meridian’s business case for the Mokihinui.

But the latest news is… the decision to grant Stockton has now been appealed by Solid Energy. In a classic piece of Orwellian double-think, Solid Energy’s reasoning is that the hydro-project may one day (they’re not sure how or when, but maybe one day) interfere with Solid Energy’s mining on the same plateau, and thus would constitute an unsustainable use of water. It would be funny were it not that Solid Energy is an SOE and so their appeal bills are in effect footed by the taxpayer.

Canterbury Water Conservation Orders

The Government used a review of ECan, initiated and executed by farming interests, as an excuse to pass the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill. The government, in a move described as ‘a disgrace’, then took the opportunity to slip in a section which changes the rules for the Hurunui Water Conservation Order, and any future application to amend any other existing WCOs such as the Rangitata and Rakaia. This was despite the fact that the WCOs have never had anything to do with ECan or its Councillors. WCOs are a national process, for rivers of national significance, and no WCO has ever been decided by a regional authority.

The Act does two things to WCO’s in Canterbury:

  1. 1. It changes the legal test used to consider whether or not a WCO should be awarded to a river. The previous, robust legal test has been replaced by a test which, in effect, gives equal importance to the benefits of dairy farming and irrigation. What we now have in Canterbury is a “Water Multi-Use Order”, not a Water Conservation Order.
  2. 2. It removes our right of appeal and cross-examination. If expert evidence that is incorrect or misleading is used to support the declining of a WCO, we have no ability to appeal it, or cross-examine witnesses, except on points of law.

In the case of the Hurunui WCO, the government has decided the legislation will apply immediately and the recommendation already made by the Special Tribunal to grant the WCO will be disregarded.

While this new law only affects Canterbury at the moment, we have no reason to believe that this will remain the case. We expect that this law, unless we can get it repealed, will eventually be rolled out across the country. This is the first step in abolishing WCOs completely.

What Can We Do?

Whitewater NZ has appealed the Mokihinui Decision to Environment Court. We have court cases likely on other rivers, and have a couple of important projects in the pipeline to help fight these battles. This will take support and money. The best two things that any paddler can do right now are

  1. Join Whitewater NZ as an individual… even if you are already a member via an affiliated club. Donations are very welcome too of course! Just click the Donate button on
  2. Get informed and get involved. Write letters to your MPs and newspaper editors, protest, make yourself heard.
  3. We urgently need to bring political pressure onto the National Caucus. Follow the link on the front page of the Wild Rivers website, and use the draft letter to send to the MP’s listed.
  4. Go to, register as a supporter and check the Events tab for actions to support.

One last thing

Rust, and developers, never sleep. The Matakitaki may be the next major battle. With submissions from over 200 kayakers on Network Tasman’s pre-feasibility study, a shot has been put across Network Tasman’s bows. But the battle for the Matakitaki hasn’t really started yet. We have been told that river level gauges have been installed on the Matakitaki.

As Mick Hopkinson said at Bullerfest, maybe the day will come where people who care about rivers can no longer let their fate be decided by a scattering of people in ugly rooms.