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Using cross blading to fill in the pools. The rest of the bed looks as though it has been ripped, with bulldozer tracks everywhere.

Drone photo from Wairarapa Times Age: What a cross bladed river looks like. The land to the left is, according to council maps, now private and under crop. The flood bank (or stop bank), the former boundary is to the left, off scene.

Toxic blue – green algae grows in the warm shallow water of the bulldozed river bed. It can be a killer for dogs and horses drinking the water.

Even access to storied rivers like the Moonlight is not sacred. What was only a few years ago public is now a hot-wired cattle race, and beyond, the banks are an overgrown mess of broom and blackberry.

The Physical Destruction of many New Zealand Rivers

New Zealand has over the last four or five years become increasingly concerned about the state of its rivers. Although agricultural intensification really began in in a big way in the early 1990’s, the consequences have not really impinged on the public psyche until recently.

Since then, the finger has been pointed at dirty dairy in what has become a myopically hysterical campaign claiming “90% of the problem is dirty dairy”. In so doing, it ignores other, equally damaging elephants in the room.

This is the first of a short series about the other elephants in the room (or river). In this the first:  the actual physical destruction of the river beds.

New Zealand was only surveyed for European occupation in the 19th century. It was a geologically young land with mountains feeding gravels out by rivers to form the wide valleys and plains that made for easy settlement.

As the rivers were carrying gravel, the “bed load”, they moved around, depositing gravels and continuing the task of making the plains. The early surveyors recognised this, and left margins of crown land.

Over time, the boundary to the crown land was walled off from the farmland by stop banks to contain the spread of flood waters. The land between the banks was an adequate management tool to absorb flood peaks and by using plantings, slow the water, yet keep the bed load moving down to maintain the sea shores against coastal erosion.

It was one of those rivers where, as youngsters we spent our family summers and many winter weekends at a fishing hut beside the flood bank on the Ashley River north of Christchurch.

The Ashley catchment does not rise in the Southern Alps, but in the foothills, so it’s a clear water river, unaffected by snow melt. It has a big catchment that takes in Lees valley and a lot of east facing foothills. It can carry a lot of water in the occasional easterly storms.
The river ran around 150 metres north of the flood bank, and the intervening crown land was used by us, the children, as an adventure land and by the then North Canterbury Catchment Board for flood control and flood protection works.

Down where we lived, flood protection was around 40 or 50 metres of coppiced willow, planted in a half chevron pattern facing downstream. The remaining ground was fairly rough, a sandy silty soil with grasses and some lupin. It finished as a low but steep bank at the braided river bed. At various points along the edge of the bank, remnants of a stump field from a burnt forest were exposed. From time to time, stock from an adjoining farm was put onto the land to keep the grass down to minimise the risk of fire.

The river itself ran naturally, with pools, riffles and runs, zigzagging along its braided bed – sometimes under the willows on the north bank. It supported big runs of whitebait, a good population of eels, trout and occasionally salmon. Mullet used to come in to lower reaches.

Bird life was abundant - banded dotterel, stilts, oyster catchers and very occasionally, white heron. Small terns nested along the sand banks down in the lower tidal reaches, sometimes losing their nests to flood and spring tides – a forlorn strand of nests and eggs.

Now all that is changed.

In 2011, after decades of absence, I went there again. The catchment board is no longer, its functions having been taken over by the regional council, Ecan. This body has since had its elected councillors sacked, to be replaced by commissioners to ensure it is more compliant with central government agenda favouring dairy expansion.

Sections of what was once the crown land on the banks of the Ashley have been fenced off, and now irrigated for dairy production. Any access beyond the SH1 bridge to the west is only available on the riverbed itself. The river flow is but a trickle in a bed probably over half a metre lower than when I was previously there in 1954.

The Ashley as a viable river environment is dead - it is now just a flood channel.

What has happened there is not unique. It is happening over most of New Zealand.

Change, not necessarily always bad, has been happening for millions of years, but what is happening now is not change from the natural events of nature, but from human activity.

The serious long-term decline came with large scale settlement, agriculture and industry. Even in the 1870’s at the time of Provisional Government, Wellington was issuing by-laws against waste discharge into rivers. A 1931 press report described Karori Stream as “polluted”. It is not new.

What really changed started happening in the 1980’s. It was a form of deceit - it was to declare that crown land that was already existing was accretion land. This is contrary to the concept of accretion land as part of land law has been around a long time and is defined in Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) documents.

It is land that has, by gradual addition through natural processes accrued to the adjoining land. That was not what happened in many of these cases; here the land already existed! The owner has applied for a revised title to include the bogus accretion. The farm has been considerably enlarged for almost no cost. What was happening here could be regarded as a serious abuse of the process and the law. It is, it seems, done with the full knowledge of councils - after all, it is now rateable land. It is still going on today.

The effect on the rivers was almost immediate, but went un-noticed and un-commented on by people who should be noticing such as Fish and Game - they should be vigilant in the interests of their license holders.

Firstly and alarmingly, access for the general public to many rivers disappeared almost overnight. The once public estate between the flood bank and the braided bed was fenced, grassed, covered in stock and privatised! Now the only way the public can get to the rivers is where there is a public road access point, and thereafter, along the river bed, often in the water.

The second was, that now regional council catchment engineers have to do all flood control work in the actual river channel. They can no longer let the flood peaks come up onto what was formerly catchment board land and be dissipated. The river had to become a flood channel, and if a flood inadvertently went over the now alienated land, there was an awful howl to the council from the new owners.

What is happening is also an attempt to prevent the actual movement of some rivers in their environment.

The loops in a river with a meander in its broad valley slowly move downstream, carving a little from the outside of the loop and depositing on the inside using material brought down from upstream.

In most cases, it is in fairly flat land, not much elevated above the river bed, but it is still nibbling into farmland on one side and depositing on what will become a gradual accretion to the neighbours on the far bank. To try and prevent this, there will be willow planting, groins and other works to try and halt the natural migration of the meander. Despite human efforts, nature will only be delayed, not denied!

The natural river, through its twists, turns, pools, rapids and clumps of trees slowed the flow, forcing flood peaks out over adjoining wetlands and low land between the flood banks. Since the loss of river control over the so-called “accretion” land, catchment engineers are having to ensure the water is kept within the actual river bed. This is done by straightening and flattening the river channel, so what was once a river becomes a water chute.

Rivers are cross bladed with bulldozers to flatten the bed and build gravel up to try and divert flow away from the outer face of meanders. Gravel has to be kept moving; this is done by ripping the bed using powerful rippers as can be seen in the Hutt River from the river road.

To get the channel down below what is new farmland, not only does gravel (and silt) have to kept moving, it has to be physically removed; sometimes by draglining or dredging. Where that is not enough, stopbanks have to be raised. Often, because of intensified agriculture and dairy, normal river flows have been reduced by water take for irrigation. Rivers now flow on a cycle of extremes, a low normal flow and short lived, violent and damaging floods.

The river as a flood channel in its constrained bed offers almost no habitat for both native fish and trout. The cross blading and ripping make the home of the many small insects and crustaceans un-tenable – the food chain of both fish and wading birds is being constantly destroyed. There is similar destruction of habitat for fish, the normal cover or pools are now few and far between.

What’s more, the water running over its shallow bed at times of low flow picks up the sun’s heat, encouraging the growth of algae – this is worsened by excess nutrients. Many algae photosynthesise, taking in oxygen at night and release it during the day resulting in wild variations of available oxygen; often barely sufficient to maintain life.

Some of the algae, like cyanobacteria, are toxic to animals. Besides the aquatic life there are the many birds that live on rivers. Small birds like dotterel can no longer nest while bulldozer rippers roar up and down. Ducks and gulls used to inhabit and nest on the braided bed or in the river margins – it is all gone now, their habitat is ruined.

In all things, there are winners and losers – in the loss of our public lands and rivers, who are they?

Firstly the winners, the rural land owners adjoining rivers where there was crown land for river control, land that was formerly under the jurisdiction of the old catchment boards. Many of these land owners have enjoyed considerable contribution to their estates for little more than the cost of survey.

The other winners are the local councils who have had a considerable portfolio rateable land added to their districts. Regional council bureaucracies have been building whole management structures and employment empires to “sustainably” manage “river schemes” for which subsidies can be sought from others in the region.

Ripping, cross blading, drag lining dredging, weed spraying and raising stopbanks do not come cheaply under the private contracting system. Ultimately the wider community ends up picking up the tabs as “indirect beneficiaries” and various other smoke and mirror guises to get money from the wider community to continue the destruction of rivers.

Who are the losers: well, ultimately the public, indeed, the whole nation.

Not only are we all paying for the benefit of few, but the privatising of the riverine margins is almost as damaging to rivers as the last twenty odd years of agricultural intensification, the massive recent growth of dairy and the ongoing problems of urban and industrial discharges. Our inland waterways have been treated by their guardians as open drains.

New Zealand Fish and Game, a body by statute responsible to both the Minister and to the Department of Conservation, yet responsible for freshwater fisheries, has until recently been silent on the state of the nation’s river beds.

Their silence was broken in a press release that appeared in the Wairarapa Times Age of 19th. February 2016; it seems they have suddenly woken up.

Their Wellington area manager, Phil Teal said Fish & Game was increasingly receiving complaints about crossblading. He reported that pools fish lived in and people swam in had not returned, even a year after the bulldozers had been in the river.

He also reported that the regional council, by breaking up the riverbed “causing higher water temperatures and exacerbating algae and weed growth. The regional council declined to comment at the time, but “will be preparing a response”.

A subsequent item in the Wairarapa Times Age of 15th March 2016 advised Mr. Teal of Fish and Game would be meeting with the regional council.

The council have also invited Mr Teal to the upcoming workshops for the Te Kauru Upper Ruamahanga River Floodplain Management subcommittee so he may provide input into the development of flood and erosion risk management options. As the stable door is open, and the horse long bolted, the exercise seems meaningless.

At this stage, I think Fish & Game’s most positive contribution to the issue would be to engage learned counsel to examine some of the “accretion” land claims to determine if there is fraud involved.

If so, then to seek a judicial review to have the process reversed and the land returned to the rightful owners, the public, i.e. the crown.

If this can happen, the land will once more be able to dissipate flood peaks, the river should in time be able to return, as close as possible, given other issues of pollution, to a natural waterway.

W. F. (Bill) Benfield grew up in Christchurch New Zealand and graduated in Architecture from Auckland in 1968. He is a practising Architect and has also worked in London and the Northern Territory of Australia. He was Chairman of Action for the Environment in the late 1970s, and in that role assisted with submissions to the McCarthy Commission on Nuclear Energy and the Upper Otaki hydro development proposals. He assisted and gave evidence in the relator court action with the Attorney-General against the consents granted the Bank of New Zealand Head Office building in Wellington. In the mid 1980s, with Sue Delamare, he established a vineyard and winery in Martinborough. It was set up without irrigation, used passive frost protection and sought to minimise energy and spray use. It was awarded a Ballance Farm Environment Award for sustainability in 2005. The wines have achieved international recognition. From his family he inherited a lifelong interest in fly fishing and the conservation of nature. He is the author of “The Third Wave - Poisoning the Land” and the more recent “At War with Nature - Corporate Conservation and the Industry of Extinction”. Both published by Tross Publishing of Wellington New Zealand.

• Tony Orman, Comments 3 and 4: Insect and other wildlife population declines were evidence of an ailing environment and struggling ecosystem says the Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations, (CORANZ). CORANZ co-chairman Bill Benfield of Martinborough said the disappearance of a number of insects was a strong and urgent warning that chemicals used in widely varying forms were crippling the ecosystem to which humans unavoidably were part of. Approvals of chemical use were often granted by authorities like the Environmental Protection Authority with little more than a cursory glance. “But these chemicals can have side effects which manifest themselves in adversely affecting insect and vertebrate populations,” he said. …

• Fried Fish in Comments: Often wondered if there is a problem with Tasmania’s Huon River. I hardly see an insect or a trout rise. A fish hatchery staffer told me the big trout don’t come to a Huon tributary weir each year like they did in years past. A Huon Valley local told me the river was once full of blackfish, but not now. Elsewhere in the world I have fished tiny creeks that have more trout than the Huon. And yet the Huon should be good, studies have shown the water is of excellent overall quality, so it begs the question, just what chemicals are they using on the plantations up in the catchments?  …