Monday, November 5, 2012


As a child in the 1950s, the Amuri Basin on the northern border of Canterbury  was often almost a desert due to low rainfall, NW winds and soaring summer temperatures, as was the case for much of the east coast of both islands.

The "Red Post", just north of Culverden Village (which incidentally often rates a mention as a summer hot spot on evening infotainment shows), was in an area of pastoral grazing country that struggled to sustain one sheep to an acre.
Today it stands in a sea of green grass and productive farming that makes my memory seem improbable.

The difference is Water from the Waiau River that in the later quarter of the 20 century, delivered  via canals and races to border dykes to turn matagouri and danthonia into fodder that now  creates "white gold". That rather inefficient water use is being transformed to a more efficient system with Pivots and other targeted delivery systems.

A few Kms south of Culverden along almost all of the North Bank of the Hurunui River as it flows across the southern boundary of "The Amuri" is the Balmoral Forest.
Planted in the late 1920s on arid alluvial flats as "work relief", yep they had poverty then but not much opportunity as a lifestyle.
The planting was much to the amusement of locals one of whom, the late Paddy Draper is reputed to have said, "might make walking sticks in 25 years if the hares and the dry don't kill them".
In November 1955 roughly 1/3 of the forest was destroyed by a fire that started in a mill at the NW end of the elongated planting, a disaster still seared on my psyche

In the 2nd or was it the 3rd Ngai Tahu settlement, crown lands planted in exotic forests were transferred to tribal ownership while the breakup of the NZFS resulted in cutting rights being sold to timber companies.
Ngai Tahu inc have ceased any replanting at Balmoral, their medium term plans are to convert the 10 000 Ha to dairy production.
Now that will require a fairly large water component.
Eyrewell Forest on the north bank of the Waimak is being treated similarly.

The first water supply solution, essential to this plan, that the tribe supported was the control on Lake Sumner to maintain a lake level at flood hight and supplement the flow of the Hurunui North Branch. Another augmentation scheme was to Dam the Hurunui South Branch to capture the "thaw" for summer release. When the inevitable strangulation device was applied by comfortably off people who did not require a productive base to sustain their chosen lifestyle, the tribe withdrew support.

The second solution again supported by Ngai Tahu was to put a storage structure on the Waitohi a tributary of the Hurunui, more foothill based than the earlier scheme and to many old heads very doubtful as a solution at all.
Again pressure to stop that scheme caused the tribe to withdraw.

A further option was proposed to take more water from the Waiau as winter harvest, through canals to a storage on the Achray hills and canal that water south to the 25 thousand acres of  forest land.

The latest idea apparently being investigated by Ngai Tahu is to winter harvest the Hurunui into storage structures on the western land of the old forest.

In the 1970s I farmed land in the heart of the Waipara Wine region and departed when a water harvesting system was planned to include the lower areas of our holding. The economics were eye-watering,  the capital charges proposed were around 3 times those that were sending farmers to the wall in central Canterbury who enjoyed far more favourable scale of operation. The Waipara scheme involved building a 10 acre/ft dam on 10 acres of productive land to water around 50 acres of crops on each property. Horticultural activity was the only option to make it viable economically, hence the subsequent move to viticulture.

Now I know the economics have changed, delivery  systems are more efficient and growing grass where trees once struggled is the paradigm of 21st century farming but with each of the proposals and subsequent abandonment, the constant is the basic cost of water keeps rising.
Yes the Hurunui River will alter with developement, but the changes may even benefit those who wish to indulge their passion for recreation along its waters as patent summer flows can be an integral part of such change.
The increased wealth created, enhanced infrastructure and accessability will benefit more people.

Changing times yes, opportunities yes, a better future yes


Bazza said...

So descriptive, an enjoyable read.

homepaddock said...

We've seen a similar transformation in North Otago, brining economic, social and environmental benefits.