19 Jan 2017

Sick river: the Selwyn's slow decline

From Summer Days with Jesse Mulligan, 9:07 am on 19 January 2017

Canterbury’s Selwyn River is not just toxic, but running dry.

Allan Strong is an engineer who’s had a bach alongside the river for many years and has watched its decline with increasing despair.

Selwyn River

Selwyn River Photo: Green Ideas editor Greg Roughan

He says it’s not a river at all these days.

“It used to be quite a lovely medium-sized river with good water quality and good flow and it was quite normal for people to picnic and swim down by the river every day.”

Strong says for New Zealanders, river swimming is a birth right.  

The Selwyn runs from the mid Canterbury foothills through to Lake Ellesmere and has been in decline for decades.

“The trout population has gone from in 1966 14000 brown trout were tracked migrating up the river to spawn to in 1984 they tracked 40 in the same place.

“The trout population has effectively been devastated.”

He says Ecan, the guardian of the river, has allowed it to deteriorate by not controlling extraction.

“Ecan set minimum flows and issue consents for water extraction.

It seems there has been a disconnect between the science at Ecan, and the political governance.”

Ecan has prioritised economic growth over the environment, he says.

Although Strong see signs that attitudes are changing.

“They have a fairly good grip on it, we now just need to start seeing some decisive action.

“Most people are disgusted with the situation at present.”

So what does he see as the solutions to the river’s parlous state.

“No one thing is going to solve the problem but Ecan need to move towards an adaptive extraction model where the recharge is considered in the winter prior to the summer irrigation season so consents for water takes are adjusted.”

And the Selwyn is indicative of our attitude towards all lowland streams, he says.

“If we’re going to market ourselves as clean and green to the rest of the world we should probably try and live up to that.”