The long and bitter argument over how much water should be in the Manuherekia River

The Manuherekia River in Central Otago flows through the driest area of New Zealand.


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A river in the driest part of New Zealand is at the centre of a bitter dispute about who gets water and for what purpose. With tough new rules in force, one community is struggling with a question: What happens when restoring a river means cutting off the community around it?

Published: 26 March, 2022

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To tell the full story of the Manuherekia River, you’d have to go back tens of millions of years, to the inland sea and the tropical crocodiles.

The river, then, was a massive lake that covered all of Central Otago, fringed with gum trees and ringed by salty mudflats. Fossil records show the lake was home to crocodiles and flightless, burrowing bats; the surrounding river deltas a feeding ground for ancient wading birds related to flamingos and Squawkzilla, the largest known parrot to ever exist.

Over time, the land heaved upwards, narrowing the lake’s edges into a river through which moa traipsed and Māori gathered kai in the steep valleys the waters left behind. Gold mining empires prospered and collapsed along the river’s banks; its waters fuelled the sheep and cattle boom that has come to define Central Otago, turning the sun-tinged tussocks green. 

We join this story, unfortunately, late in the piece. The river is at a low point, both figuratively and literally; its grand history is mere window dressing for a dispute about water management, the limits of local governance, and the difficulty in holding the environment and the economy together.

More specifically, we arrive at this story on a Wednesday afternoon in August. Elected members of the Otago Regional Council (ORC), the body responsible for water management in the region, are meeting over Zoom (due to Covid) to discuss how much water should be in the Manuherekia River. 

The meeting, mired with technical difficulties, devolves into raised voices and accusations; it becomes symbolic of how the debate around the Manuherekia has cleaved a rural community in two.

The shaky bridge at Alexandra crosses the Manuherekia River near its mouth.

The shaky bridge at Alexandra crosses the Manuherekia River near its mouth.

But first, the river. 

The Manuherekia River starts high in the often snow-capped Hawkdun and St Bathans ranges, flowing down to the Falls Dam, constructed in the 1930s to control the flow in the river. It then cuts through steep, canyon-like schist walls before spilling out onto the plains, braiding through tussock land and pasture.

More gorges, more plains, more braids; After 85km, it ends at Alexandra, where it spills into the Clutha, the country’s largest river.

This basin is part of the driest area in New Zealand, and the closest thing the country has to a desert. In an average year, it will get 400mm of rainfall - similar to some parts of the Middle East - meaning freshwater is in short supply.

The chief water supplier is the Manuherekia River, which receives snowmelt from the ranges. In its upper reaches, the river can seem raw, primal, tearing apart steep schist rock; in reality, it is one of the most heavily depleted rivers in the country and a shadow of its former self.

Most rivers start with a low flow at their source, picking up pace as they descend downwards and take water from connecting streams and creeks, reaching their highest flow where they terminate into another river or the sea. 

The Manuherekia does the opposite. Its high flow is diminished through irrigation, leaving little remaining at its mouth: Ecologically speaking, it functions more like a water race than a river. 

The result is that the Manuherekia is likely the most over-extracted river in the country; around 75 per cent of its water is taken. According to the council’s current water plan, the Manuherekia should have a take limit of 3200l/s. In reality, consents allow nearly 26,000l/s to be taken.

When you look at it now, as it limps into the Clutha, the Manuherekia's average flow is a whisper of what it once was. A giant lake no more; barely even a river.

A wild, rugged section of the Manuherekia River.

It’s a hazy, late-summer afternoon in Oturehua, a tiny community in Central Otago’s Ida Valley, when we stop by to enquire about the river.

Oturehua used to be a gold mining town, but it has since become known for something else: An unusually high number of poets and writers.

Among its few dozen residents are several accomplished authors, who have published many books between them. Oturehua almost certainly has the most published books per capita in the country. It is still, however, a rural Otago community surrounded by farmland, which can create tensions.  

Among the town’s residents is the poet Brian Turner, who lives in a small, cosy house along the main drag, rooms piled high with books. 

In a poem, Turner once described the Manuherekia River as a “liberating place”. Now, he says,  there is less water in the streams, and fewer fish to collect. The basin’s dry tussocks have made way for irrigated pasture.

“It’s much, much greener than it used to be at various times of the year,” he says, reclining in his chair.

There was no pivot irrigation and that sort of thing, and more native grassland… The Manuherekia was entirely different in many parts.

Turner has been roaming Central Otago’s rivers for more than half a century, since he was a young man living in Becks, which is along the Manuherekia. He is a keen fisherman and tramper. 

After a brief period in Wellington - abandoned, he says, when one day he stood on the southern coast, looked at the Kaikoura ranges, and decided to come home - he has remained in southern New Zealand ever since, much of it in tiny Oturehua.

the poet Brian Turner The poet Brian Turner at his home in Oturehua.

Turner keeps across the environmental issues of the day, including the minimum flow debate currently roiling the council. 

He and several of his fellow authors in Oturehua are among the chief advocates for restoring the river. They are members of the Central Otago Environmental Society (COES), which has lobbied for stronger environmental limits on the Manuherekia and other rivers. 

It can be a tough stand to make in a small, rural community, where issues are litigated at the local pub, one of the few surviving remnants of the gold mining days. Turner and other environmentalists have been accused of being extremists or showing insufficient regard for the plight of farmers, some of whom are their neighbours.

“There are a hell of a lot of farmers who love their land and do a good job, so it’s not black and white,” Turner says.

It’s a fiction, or a myth, to accuse people with concerns about our natural environment to be anti-farming. We’re not anti-farming - we’re averse to some of the consequences and what’s being done to the land and the water

Turner was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and struggles with his short term memory. But he remembers the past well, including what the land and rivers used to be like.

“The river has been allowed to reduce to too little a flow,” he says. 

“You’ll find a lot of people agree with that - on the environmentalist side, anyway.”

A few doors down, Jillian Sullivan - another published writer, and Turner’s partner - is growing a hemp crop on her property.

It was her attempt to explore different land uses, ones that might be less onerous on the land and water. After her first year, she admits it’s been difficult - the results have been mixed, due in part to the harsh climate.

published writer Jillian Sullivan Writer Jillian Sullivan outside her home.

“Growing hemp without enough water has been a harsh introduction into what water means for people’s livelihoods,” she says.

We walk down to the stream flowing through her land, which is a tributary of the Manuherekia River. The water is clouded, grimy. Thick brown algae cling to the rocks; small shards of coal from an old mine have washed onto the banks. 

“It’s not looking too bad,” Sullivan says, a bit surprised. A solitary pool of water looks vaguely swimmable. 

A hemp crop grown by Jillian Sullivan
A hemp crop grown by Jillian Sullivan
Hemp plants grown By Jillian Sullivan.

Last year, Sullivan and others walked the length of the Manuherekia River. She recounted the experience to the Environment Court, arguing in favour of setting minimum flows in the river.

On the first day, she rolled up her trousers, ready to walk through the river; she sunk into a deep pool. The river’s flow was high.

A month later, she returned to the same section. The river’s channel had moved entirely; dry, white-crusted boulders lay where the pool had been. Its flow was less than one cumec. 

Sullivan accepts how difficult it can be to reconcile what everyone needs to thrive; but, having seen the river in its whole, she knows the river has needs, too.

“Walking the river gave me a deep insight into what a river is, what is meant by the life force of a river,” she told me.

We need to move forward with more awareness of everyone’s needs - including the rivers and streams.

Jillian Sullivan looks at a polluted stream - a tributary of the Manuherekia River - that flows through her land.

Jillian Sullivan looks at a polluted stream - a tributary of the Manuherekia River - that flows through her land.

This story, unfortunately, is not all poets, parrots and landscapes. It requires a cursory knowledge of the dynamics of the ORC, which is a saga in itself.

In brief, the debate about the Manuherekia River is about how much water should be in it.

Due to a strange historical quirk, many of Otago’s rivers do not have minimum flow limits. 

Most rivers in New Zealand have these limits. They are like a ‘do not cross’ line - when flows get to that level, you can’t take water from the river. 

These limits on average are set around 75 per cent of a river’s mean flow, meaning 25 per cent of its water can be extracted. 

Because the Manuherekia has no minimum flow, much more water is taken. Irrigators have set a voluntary limit of around 25 per cent of its mean annual low flow (MALF), meaning water users can take 75 per cent of the water.

This can leave the river and its tributaries barely flowing in dry periods.

“There’s certainly been a major change in the way the river behaves, and that’s due, basically, to excessive extraction,” says Matthew Sole, a member of COES who has lived by the river for 40 years.

When we used to swim in the river in the early 1980s, we’d be able to float down between pools. When I walked it in more recent times, there’s no way you could do that - you’d have to walk.

This not only affects the main stem of the river, but also its many connecting creeks and streams, some of which can be sucked dry through irrigation.

This has happened alongside broader environmental and economic changes.

farm An irrigator near the river working on a summer afternoon.

Central Otago is not Canterbury - it is still sheep and beef country, and dairy farming is a small proportion of the total - but there has been growth in both the intensity of that farming and the amount of land that is irrigated.

It has been driven by precise irrigation techniques, such as central pivot spray irrigators. Unlike older flood irrigators, which drench a concentrated area with water every so often, spray irrigators frequently apply a small amount of water more consistently.

This change is both a blessing and a curse.  Because spray irrigators are so precise, they deliver just enough water for the crop or pasture to grow, which prevents wastage. But if you suddenly lose access to enough water, the crop or pasture will quickly fail - the water supply needs to be consistent and predictable.

This is already hard in the driest part of New Zealand. Rules to keep more water in the river would make it even tougher, and for some farms, impossible. 



So, this is the dilemma the council faces: A river short of water, and an economy built on consistent access to that water.

This is tricky enough, but the ORC has another, related issue on its plate. It has to write and pass a brand new land and water plan. 

The reason for this is unique and requires some context. 

Back in the gold mining days, generous water use permits were given to miners by the Government so they could sluice the goldfields.

This led to massive overallocation of the Manuherekia River. When mining collapsed, the Government allowed the water to be used for irrigation instead. Importantly, the water rights were perpetually renewable - they did not expire, and had few restrictions on how much water could be used. 

The Government itself collected most of the water rights to construct its own irrigation schemes in the Manuherekia. In the 1980s, the Government privatised these schemes and the water rights, granting them to individual farmers and irrigation collectives. At the same time, the Resource Management Act was passed, allowing a 30 year period for those rights - which it called “deemed permits” -  to expire.

That was 1991. By October 2021, all these water rights from the mining days would be gone and replaced under the rules that apply to the rest of the country, which would be far less generous. 

That, of course, has now passed. But the issue is far from over.

The idea was that when the permits expired, the replacement water consents would be issued under the council’s land and water plan, which would meet the requirements of the national policy statement for freshwater (NPSFW), set by the Government. 

The problem? By October 2021, the council only had its land and water plan from 2004, which clearly did not meet the national standards. Hundreds of consents were about to lapse with no reasonable plan for how they’d be replaced. 

This was not a surprise. In 2019, Minister for the Environment David Parker commissioned a review into the deemed permit issue, looking at whether the council was ready for the deemed permits to expire.

The historic bridge at Ophir.

The historic bridge at Ophir.

The review, undertaken by former judge Peter Skelton, was critical: the council was not ready. His report came out shortly before the local body elections; Skelton was at the first meeting of newly elected councillors, explaining to them how much work they had to do.

At this pivotal time in the council’s history, councillors opted to vote a newly elected member as chair: Former minister for the environment, Marian Hobbs. Her deputy chair was Michael Laws, the former Whanganui mayor, NZ First MP, and talkback radio host. 

This was a bracing reversal of the recent trends. Like other regional councils, the ORC was perceived to be driven by farming interests, rather than environmental interests. 

“It’s been the fox looking after the henhouse,” says Phil Murray, chairman of COES, the environmental group.

The farming industry has totally dominated the decisions around the allocation of a public resource in favour of a very narrow, small part of the community.

Hobbs, however, was committed to driving through a new land and water plan that would put stronger environmental protections in place. She repeatedly pushed for speed, including truncated public consultation periods. She was seen as sympathetic - or, as some argued, compliant - to the Government, which itself was urging the ORC to hurry up.

Early in 2020, the council made a big step towards meeting the Government’s requirements; its new plan change meant any new water use consents would only last six years.

This stopgap measure was a blow to irrigators, who rely on longer-term consents - which typically last up to 35 years - to secure funding for farming infrastructure.

This new rule applied to the hundreds of deemed permits that would expire in October 2021, as well as any other consents expiring in the coming years. These short-term consents would also limit users to their past average water use, and not allow any irrigation expansion. Basically, it meant no farmers could get ahead of the new land and water plan before it comes into effect. 

This is when things started to fall apart. Hobbs was ousted from her job as chair, after it emerged she had written to Parker asking if he would replace the councillors with commissioners if she lost an upcoming vote. She remained on the council, but the chairman role was given to Andrew Noone, a former Dunedin City Councillor and a sheep and beef farmer, who was seen as a more unifying presence.

A car crosses the Ophir bridge.

Ugly and false rumours circulated that Hobbs had dementia. She continued to request - publicly, this time - that commissioners replace the councillors, and even signed a public petition to that effect. She told the media there had been a “war” against her.

There was more drama. The council’s chief executive, Sarah Gardner, filed a code of conduct complaint against Laws, following public comments he made about council staff (it was not upheld). Several other councillors have publicly lobbied for their own sacking, saying the council is unable to act impartially on issues involving freshwater. Another has faced allegations he is working behind the scenes to influence decisions around the Manuherekia he is publicly recused from (he has a large water take from the river). The head of the council’s freshwater science team resigned, citing a wish to go overseas, in the middle of the process. It’s understood turnover among council staff is high.

All of this conflict lurked beneath the Zoom meeting in August, which we touched on briefly at the start of this story.

The purpose of this meeting was for council staff to formally recommend how much water they think should be in the Manuherekia. 

People had been waiting for this number. What makes the Manuherekia issue so tricky is that there is little agreement on what the minimum flow should be.


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The Manuherekia River (right) at its confluence with the Clutha in Alexandra JOHN BISSET/STUFF

The Manuherekia River (right) at its confluence with the Clutha in Alexandra JOHN BISSET/STUFF

At the moment, irrigators have a voluntary agreement to leave the river at 900l/s where it flows through Alexandra. Everyone agrees this is too low.  

They have since proposed a minimum flow of 1100l/s, whilst maintaining residual flows in the connected streams and creeks, which can currently be sucked dry. 

“Everyone would be feeling a wee bit of pain to do that,” says Anna Gillespie, a farmer who chairs the local water users’ group. 

There would be more times when we would have water shut off than what has been already, but [the proposal] is based on the ecological values in those creeks.

Environmentalists and iwi, however, favour a much higher minimum flow - anywhere between 3000 and 4000l/s. This would cut off irrigation for long periods of time and make some farms unviable, but it would significantly improve the river’s ecological functions. 

This is the problem at the heart of the Manuherekia debate: There is very little room for either side to compromise. 

As part of its work, the council investigated five minimum flow scenarios for the river, ranging from 1200l/s to 3000l/s.

At 1200l/s, virtually all ecological aspects of the river remain degraded, with frequent algal blooms in the summer. Irrigation reliability would only decline slightly, and there would be no loss of employment in normal years.

At 3000l/s, the river would become “a productive freshwater ecosystem” with flourishing life. Irrigation would basically become unviable, with finance “becoming very difficult to obtain”.

Most of the space inbetween is a dead zone. At 2000l/s, irrigation reliability is poor, and ecological health remains degraded. It is only at either extreme that you get a favourable  outcome for either side.

The council, nevertheless, tried to strike a middle path in making its recommendation - it proposed starting with a minimum flow of 1200 L/s by 2023, slowly ratcheting it up to 2500 L/s by 2044.

Falls Dam controls much of the river's flow.

A lot of work had gone into these numbers, which would dictate the future of the surrounding community. By the council’s own estimation, it had taken six years, cost $4.4m, and involved 26,587 staff hours. Much of this work had been assessed by a technical advisory group (TAG), comprising scientists nominated by each of the interest groups involved. It means the Manuherekia is likely among the most thoroughly studied rivers in the country.

It took the councillors four and a half hours to debate these numbers. To make a (very) long story short, some of the councillors opposed ‘noting’ the staff recommendation, ostensibly because they wanted more scientific work done. The others argued that was a delay tactic, and it was their job, as councillors, to land on a number.

“Your arguments all focus on delay, grasping at straws to defend an indefensible position, and I can only assume this delay is to find something that might support the continued economic exploitation of this river,” said councillor Alexa Forbes.

This is how a river dies, people. Science creates loose ends, it will not tie them up. We have enough science to defend a higher minimum flow.

Marion Hobbs made a similar argument, noting the time and effort that had gone into the recommendation: “Dear God, what more could we want,” she pleaded with her colleagues.

For those declining to note the recommendation, the science, comprehensive as it may be, was still not enough.

They were being asked to make a decision that would impact many people; jobs, livelihoods, communities could be lost.

“All the majority of councillors are asking for is that before we start to inflict what we know is a significant cost upon hundreds, potentially thousands of people that we represent, that we know the science is exact, that it is agreed, and that it allows us to make the right, appropriate decision,” councillor Michael Laws said.

I’ve heard what I can only consider to be almost hysteria in the previous comments of the economic exploitation of the river, how the river will die if we don’t make a decision today, a supremely ludicrous proposition when all that is being asked is that we actually do what we set out to do.

Those opposed to noting the recommendation won. The council asked for more science from the TAG, which had already finished its work and would need to reassemble. It seemed unlikely that more science would change the outcome.

By the end of the meeting, it was clear tempers were frayed, and councillors were frustrated with each other. Not long after the meeting, Hobbs would resign from the council, and several other councillors would lobby for the Government to fire them, claiming the council was dysfunctional.

Acknowledging the split near the end of the meeting, chairman Andrew Noone, who had voted not to note the flow limits, made a plea for unity.

“I believe we all want the same thing, we say it in a different language,” he said.

“As chair, I don’t want us to fall apart. I don’t want any of us to have to swim against the tide.”

Van Galvin, 12, jumps into the Manuherekia River on a summer afternoon.

Van Galvin, 12, jumps into the Manuherekia River on a summer afternoon.

This might seem like a parochial dispute about one community and its river. 

But in some ways, it encapsulates the long-running tension around water management that has happened, in some form, in every region in the country.

What makes the Manuherekia issue so important is that the entire context of this debate has changed, in a way that is likely to prompt many more debates like it around the country. 

In September 2020, a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater (NPSFW) came into effect, following the Government’s freshwater reforms. 

All councils have to “give effect” to this document, which sets out the principles they need to follow when making decisions. 

One principle supercedes all others in these new rules - it’s called Te Mana o Te Wai, the mana of the water. 

In short, councils have to consider this simple hierarchy when making rules around water:

  • 1) The health, or mana, of the water
  • 2) The health of the people (for example, drinking water)
  • 3) The ability of people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural well-being

At the top, notably, is the health of the river; at the bottom is the economy. 

In the past, regional councils could prioritise economic matters in their freshwater decisions, and often did. Now, they must put freshwater quality first.

What does this mean in practice? Well, it’s not quite clear. Otago is among the first to have this debate, starting a new water plan from scratch that has to meet Te Mana o Te Wai from day one (other councils can transition their existing plans to meet the NPSFW over a period of time.) 

For environmentalists, this makes much of the Manuherekia debate meaningless. In the past, councils had more room to balance the economy and the environment; now, the choice has been made for them.

Te Mana o Te Wai is the law, - Phil Murray, from COES

“What we're seeing here [from councillors voting to delay a decision] is a pushback against the national policy statement and its hierarchy.

“We’ve got land use that is very water consumptive established in the driest part of New Zealand, which makes it very difficult and expensive to achieve Te Mana o Te Wai with a council that has no political will to do that.”

Phil Murray, chairman of COES Phil Murray, chairman of the Central Otago Environmental Society.

A similar argument has been made by other environmental groups. 

“The core principle we've been pushing for is ensuring that Te Mana o te Wai, the health of the river, comes first,” says Rick Zwaan of Forest and Bird, which has lobbied for a higher minimum flow. 

“And it requires that when you're considering these flows, that needs to be at the forefront of the decision making prior to considering other uses of that water.”

By not noting the flow limits proposed by staff - limits that are lower than what Forest and Bird and other environmental groups have lobbied for - councillors were delaying a decision they had no choice but to make. 

“In terms of rivers in New Zealand, the amount of science that has been done in this catchment is really extensive. My question is, what more do you want to know, in terms of being able to determine what these minimum flows are?”

A core component of Te Mana o te Wai is a greater collaboration with mana whenua, largely by determining what is meant by the mauri of a river, which can only be determined by local hapū and iwi. What constitutes Te Mana o te Wai, and how it should be implemented, may vary from place to place based on local mātauranga.

In the Manuherekia's case, iwi Kāi Tahu, through its environmental consultancy Aukaha, has made its own series of recommendations including an increase to the minimum flow to between 2500l/s and 3100l/s over a 10 year period.

Māori have a close relationship with the Manuherekia. Its name roughly translates to “to catch birds” - the river was once a valued site for catching weka, ducks, and wading birds, as well as tuna. Given its position, tucked between multiple ranges, it was likely a stopping point along old travelling routes through the yawning, snow-capped hills.

The mātauranga Māori developed during that time risks being lost alongside the river’s degradation.

“What we are looking for is a shift to a pattern of flow that is more reflective of the natural flows, that supports the habitat needs and the customary use and that restores the mauri of the river,” Aukaha chairman Edward Ellison told a public workshop in August.

From the iwi’s perspective, it wasn’t lobbying for the Manuherekia to become a natural, unmodified river; its people wanted to see its mauri returned, according to the principles of Te Mana o Te Wai.

“We’re not trying to turn the river back to its unmodified state,” Allison said.

“We’re looking to get an outcome that reinstates the mauri, that gives us the opportunity to have mahinga kai - that connection our people sense and feel when they see and touch that river that it’s close to reflecting a natural state.”

Runoff from a farm beside the Manuherekia River.

Runoff from a farm beside the Manuherekia River.

Anna Gillespie has farmed from Te Anau to Taupō, but she says there’s something different about farming in Central Otago - weathering the harsh climate, working with the landscape.

“It’s a powerful place to farm,” she says.

You’re facing those challenges and working with the environment to mitigate and grow as much food as you can… I love it.

She and her husband, Ben, have run a 360ha farm near Omakau for 10 years, which has been an exercise in learning to live with the environment. They mostly farm young dairy stock, with some beef finishing - a bit over half the farm is irrigated.

It’s about as intensive as farming gets in the Manuherekia. They have designed their farm to handle the punishingly dry conditions; working with the soil to maintain moisture, and growing as much food as possible in the times when water is available.

“It’s just working with the biological system you’ve got,” she says. 

“It’s not necessarily rocket science, it’s just realising your limitations and working with them to improve them.”

The sign at Anna and Ben Gillespie's farm. TWO FARMERS FARMING/SUPPLIED

The sign at Anna and Ben Gillespie's farm. TWO FARMERS FARMING/SUPPLIED

The Gillespies have sought to leave the land in better shape than when they found it. In 2020, they were the regional winners of the Ballance Environmental Awards; they’ve planted thousands of native plants since 2017 and constructed wetlands on the property.

They have opened their farm up to the public for open days and invited kids from local schools to learn about native plantings, which they grow in their own nurseries. They are themselves active in the community, including in local schools, which largely comprise the children of farmers.

Under a high minimum flow, much of that would be gone, she says. Irrigation reliability would become too poor to be viable; land values would drop, and farms would go out of business.

The river trickles over stones near Ophir.

“When you’ve got this much invested in the land and the community, would you walk away?” she says.

“And how do we walk away other than a whole lot of bankrupt businesses and a community completely stuffed?

“That’s the other side of that argument. Yeah, they want a high flow, but what does that actually do to the community?”

Most frustrating, Gillespie says, is the lack of a broader discussion about solutions. Some have suggested compensation for farmers who lose access to water - essentially buying them out. But what happens to the land? Farming them without water would crash their value, taking money out of the community. “It’s pretty pie in the sky,” Gillespie says.

“There’s got to be a better solution than that, and I think most farmers would agree with that.”

For the lower part of the Manuherekia Basin, water could be taken from the Clutha and distributed through better infrastructure, she says. Falls Dam, which is 90 years old, could be rebuilt or expanded.

You’ve got to make the whole thing sustainable for the future, not just put all the water back in the river and go stuff anyone that lives in the valley,

“There’s definitely solutions, it’s getting people on board and actually going through those solutions, rather than constantly fighting about what a minimum flow should be.”

She’s been involved in this debate for years, and has seen people on the other side come and go. At no point has there been any sign of compromise, she says, one that would allow the community to stay together. 

“We take the view that we’re here for a long time,” Gillespie says.

“We plant thousands of natives, we’re making a good environmental footprint here and we’re making a difference, whereas they’re not - all they do is come and argue and leave.

“There has got to be some meet-in-the-middle. We’ve already taken significant steps towards that and no one else has.”

A gorged section of the river.

When Matthew Sole moved to Central Otago 40 years ago, he found himself in a strange and unusual landscape.

“I thought I'd landed on the moon when I first arrived here,” he says. 

“It took a bit to get used to, but it’s really got under my skin. I can’t see myself leaving.”

Everything was brown, rocky; there were barely any trees. On a macro scale, it looked hostile to life, but look closer and you’d see a world in miniature; the highest levels of biodiversity in the country, higher than beech forest, but invisible to many of us.  

Sole is an archaeologist who specialises in goldfields history. His work has led him to canvass much of the river and its tributaries. 

Nowadays, when he ascends into the high country, looking over the valley, he doesn’t see the moonscape he once loved.

“When I walked up there 20 years ago, you looked out over the Springvale flats, and they were just brown and sculptured, it was incredible,” he says.

“When I got up there recently, I got the shock of my life. There were vineyards, dairy support, lifestyle blocks - the whole landscape had changed immensely.”

Fog descends on the dry hills in the Manuherekia Basin.

Fog descends on the dry hills in the Manuherekia Basin.

Sole has long advocated for restoring the Manuherekia, and has become frustrated by recent council decisions. He says councillors are kicking the can down the road, repeating the mistakes that got them into this situation to start with.

He is no mere bystander: He himself has a modest water take on the river as part of an irrigation scheme, and was once an officer with the former Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF).

As part of his archaeological work, Sole once came across a historical description of the Manuherekia River, dating to the 1860s - it was a place with “the purest water to drink”, with bush so thick that cows could be lost for days, the writer described. 

Just in his own lifetime, Sole has watched the river degrade.The gravels are often covered in slimy algae, and every so often an algal bloom strikes, which is

like swimming in pea and ham soup

For Sole, only a high minimum flow will restore the mauri of the river. The environment is like a person, a river its bloodstream; if you take out too much blood, the whole thing dies. 

The river at less than one cumec of flow MATTHEW SOLE/SUPPLIED

The river at less than one cumec of flow MATTHEW SOLE/SUPPLIED

He cannot see how the two sides of this debate will land on a solution.

“What I struggle with is … I don’t feel we’ve got that much closer,” he says.

We’ve got better information, but basically the irrigating community sees that things are okay and the stewardship paternity sees that things are not okay.

“There’s this gulf, and I personally don’t feel it can be bridged.”

A healthy flow in the river at its upper reaches.

For now, the issue is in a holding pattern. The council will soon receive the work it requested from the TAG, and will once again have to decide whether it has enough information to make a decision.

When Marian Hobbs resigned, she was not replaced, meaning the councillors demanding more aggressive action are a clear minority. They will, however, have to make a decision; they’ve made a commitment to the Government that a land and water plan with minimum flow limits will be notified next year.

What it will look like is unclear.

The water thing has polarised us so far we’re all looking askance at each other, - Councillor Alexa Forbes

“It's hard to trust that people are thinking on every issue in the more open way that we used to.”

In her view, there is a residual unwillingness to accept the rules of the game have changed. 

“I do think that some are really struggling with that concept of Te Mana o Te Wai, where the economy is not primary. And clearly, under this law, we are now willing to put the health of our environment above the health of our economy, and that's a big step for New Zealand.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more of these difficulties [nationally], and ORC is at the cutting edge of it.”

Despite what some critics might say, the council is on track to pass its land and water plan, despite the delay over the Manuherekia, says Andrew Noone, the council’s chairman.

Like others on the council, he recognises the magnitude of the decision, on both the community and the environment.

“These sorts of decisions have a significant impact on their communities, on water users and on the environment, so you want to get it right,” he says.

You don't want to spend years and a significant amount of money trying to defend it in a court process. The only winners there are the legal representatives, rather than the environment and the people who have got a direct connection to the catchment.

In his view, it is likely the minimum flow decision will be a staged one - a minimum flow that starts at the lower end of options, before ramping up in future years, much like council staff recommended.

A gorged section near the end of the Manuherekia River.

A gorged section near the end of the Manuherekia River.

Noone himself has walked the Manuherekia River, as have others in this debate. He has felt the water pull at his legs, and followed the river’s channel as it sways among the tussocks. He recognises that there needs to be a shift towards more environmental protection, and says the process will be guided by Te Mana o Te Wai, as the law requires. 

Will the council be united enough to agree on that? Noone thinks so.

“We’re dealing with challenging issues, and that does create tension. Yeah, I accept that,” he says. 

It's not easy to be able to land in a place that can satisfy everybody's needs. But, you know, like all decision making there needs to be compromises. We recognise that the pendulum needs to swing back towards the environment.
Reporting Charlie Mitchell
Visuals Alden Williams
Design and layout Sungmi Kim
Editor John Hartevelt
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