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Govt's Freshwater Action Plan a 'disaster for the Waiau River'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Our children may never swim in the Waiau River if the Government’s draft National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management is approved. The Government has committed to putting the health of the water first - but not for Southland’s Waiau River. The ‘national bottom lines’ to protect swimming and ecosystem health are not mandatory in the Waiau Catchment - putting the Waiau River, as well as Lakes Manapōuri and Te Anau, at risk for future generations. 

Meridian’s Manapōuri Power Station, 51% Government owned, is exempt from the draft NPSFM 2019 released 5 September. Unlike most hydro-schemes, Meridian doesn’t return the water to the Waiau River after generating power, but discharges it deep into Fiordland. The Manapōuri Power Scheme discharges some 500 cumecs (think the Clutha) from the Waiau into Deep Cove. This is up to 95% of the Waiau River’s flow and accounts for half of New Zealand’s total freshwater use. 

Original opposition to the Scheme sparked the ‘Save Manapōuri’ campaign, and the birth of New Zealand’s environmental movement. But 50 years on, what was once New Zealand’s second largest river is used by Meridian as a convenient, highly sedimented and at times toxic spillway. The environmental impacts are massive and the draft NPSFM puts even the minimum flows the Waiau River currently has at risk. 

A past resident of Tuatapere for 15 years, Southland Mayor Gary Tong is opposed to the exemption. "No further degradation of the Waiau should be allowed. The focus must be on re-establishing this valuable ecosystem," he said.

The Kahui Wai Māori advisory group also strongly opposed any exemptions under the NPSFM, including for Manapōuri. They are committed to Te Mana o te Wai. Unfortunately, in the Waiau Catchment the Government seems more concerned with ‘Te Mana o Meridian’. 

During a visit to Southland in October 2018 Hon. James Shaw observed that the problem with getting meaningful change in the Waiau was that, "the Government likes its dividend". Hon. David Parker, Minister for the Environment, declined to provide comment. 

Environment Southland Chair, Nicol Horrell said that under the current NPSFM 2017 the Regional Council was required to set qualitative and quantitative limits. "I can see no good justification not to include Meridian’s water take, from one of our major rivers, in that process," he said. 

After nearly 2 years battling Meridian through the Environment Court to have the ecological health of the Waiau River given due consideration, Claire Jordan of the Waiau Rivercare Group said they are, "gutted to see where the draft NPS has landed". The community is now expected to shoulder the burden of mitigating the impact of the Power Scheme as best they can with just 5% of the river’s original flow. That burden will fall on everyone in the catchment except Meridian: on those who live and work in Te Anau, Manapōuri and Tuatapere, the tourism businesses, and those who farm the land, whether they border the River directly or not. Jordan is concerned that, "a grim future of high temperatures, murky water and algal blooms lies ahead for the Waiau River. A future which, under this NPS, will persist for another 50 years".

"As a community, we are committed to making positive change for the health of our River, but we cannot do it alone." Jordan said. "Our vision is a future where ecological health and hydro-generation co-exist in our catchment, but we can't achieve that if the rules don't apply to Meridian."

A public forum is being held at the Civic Theatre in Invercargill on Wednesday and the Bridge Club in Winton on Thursday this week. Public submissions on the National Policy Statement close on October 17.

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