21 Apr 2017

Water Fools? - 'Pinched' for power

Whanganui River
From Water Fools?, 8:21 pm on 21 April 2017

Whanganui locals say the city's river would be in better shape if the Tongariro Power Scheme hadn't been allowed to divert its headwaters.

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"E rere kau mai te Awa nui mai i te Kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa. Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au."

Whanganui Māori have an ancient proverb that emphasises the sacred flow of their river from the mountain to the sea. However, these days, some of that water is being diverted to a hydro-electric scheme run by Genesis Energy.

And some locals can't help but think their river would be better off without it.

For more than 20 years, 82-year-old skipper Trevor Gibson has sailed the historic Waimarie Paddle Steamer up and down the Whanganui River.

A small crowd of locals and out-of-towners mill around the dock, as Captain Gibson dons his black aviators and boards the country's only authentic coal-fired paddle steamer.

Trevor Gibson, the 82-year-old skipper of the Waimarie Paddle Steamer.

Trevor Gibson, the 82-year-old skipper of the Waimarie Paddle Steamer, is still going strong. Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

Mr Gibson affectionately calls the Waimarie his "mistress", and in the 67 years he has lived here, he says he has seen a lot of changes to the river.

"You can see all this is erosion. That's gone back over there about 10m over the years. It's just even right in on the side there," he says.

"When they put in the Tongariro power scheme I reckon they pinched 18 inches of water out of the river.

"Being involved in Sea Cadets in those days we had to wait for a spring low tide to extend our slipway. Now at low tide the slipway's a metre out of the water, so where has that water gone?"

The Whanganui River

The Whanganui River Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

Genesis Energy takes water from the Whanganui River's headwaters for its Tongariro Power Scheme.

A report released last week by the Prime Minister's Chief Scientist, Sir Peter Gluckman, included that hydro dams can change the environment by slowing the flow of rivers and causing erosion.

Whanganui iwi have always opposed the power scheme, and spent about 10 years in court with Genesis trying to stop it - but to no avail.

In a bid to keep out of the courts, the two signed a relationship agreement in 2010 known as Hei Whakaaro Tahi ki te Mana o te Awa.

Annette Main, by the Whanganui River.

Annette Main Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

Former mayor Annette Main is well respected by local Māori, and says it is a good thing that iwi have a relationship with Genesis.

She lives in a modest home on one of the town's busiest roads, just across from the river.

Mrs Main says she understands power generation is important but has a gripe with the Tongariro scheme not returning the water it takes.

"They not only take the water away and put it into another catchment but they also take away a lot of the stones and kind of material that helps flush the river."

The Whanganui River

Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

Most of the year, silt colours the river brown, nevertheless, Mrs Main says the water quality is not as bad as it looks.

"We had an event here a couple of weeks ago and I heard parents saying was it safe to be taking their children to be taking part in the triathlon in the river ... I just said 'look, it's just silt, run off the hills that we cleared'. It's not unhealthy."

Genesis Energy has resource consent to continue diverting the Whanganui headwaters until 2039.

It declined an interview, but said in a statement that - while it acknowledged Whanganui iwi's continued opposition to the operation of the Tongariro Power Scheme - their agreement allowed for continued discussion about matters of disagreement.

It said the agreement furthered a mutual interest in the health and wellbeing of the Whanganui River.

The recently-passed Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act gives the waterway special status as a legal person, but it is too early to know just how it will work and what it will mean for the river in future.

Nevertheless, canoe guide Charles Ranginui has high hopes that the new legislation will mean more focus is given to improving the river.

Charles Ranginui

Charles Ranginui Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

Born and bred in Whanganui, Mr Ranginui says the awa has changed significantly since he was a boy.

"So the early '70s with Mum and Dad fishing up at Koriniti and Atene, fishing the whole way with the tuna pa and the stones," he says.

"We'd catch a bucket in a scoop. Twenty-litre bucket in one scoop. Compared to like now, you are lucky to get a handful."

He puts most of the changes he has seen down to dairy farming and forestry but the power scheme gets to him on a wairua level.

"If you think of the spiritual korero, coming from Ranginui down through our maunga ... The real life-force, it is missing that.

"It is pretty hard to turn back the clock, I think."

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Photo: RNZ / Hans Weston

Water Fools? is a unique RNZ series running on air and online, examining the state of one of our most precious resources.