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An environmental history of our rivers is a reminder that few still have even limited protection

A painting of the Waikato River where it leaves Lake Taupo (c1900), by William Baker.

"Our habitat is shrinking as governments and ­developers destroy the high-gradient, high-volume rivers as a ­so-called renewable resource. We have lost more than is remaining. Kayakers have responded by becoming environmental activists. It’s not in our nature, but we feel compelled to do something.”

The quote is from veteran canoeist Hugh Canard, in New Zealand’s Rivers: An Environmental History. And unlike the ­preservation of high country and mountains – sometimes at the behest of enlightened governments – few of our rivers have been granted even limited protection without protracted, if not litigious, campaigns. Many more, as author Catherine Knight argues, still languish unprotected through the lowlands; while too many, to reprise Stevie Smith parlayed by Environment Minister Nick Smith, are now for “not swimming but wading”.

Given recent books on the topic, including Knight’s previous book, Robert McDowall’s epic Ikawai and Mike Joy’s Polluted Inheritance, you might wonder at the need for another. However, by dint of careful research and thoughtful ­composition, she has produced a judicious digest of the essential and the new.

An early angler with his trout. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/1/1-005184-G

Chapters are constructed around themes of river environmental history. So this is not a locational history, nor is it polemic. The typically 20-page, well-illustrated chapters are thematic: Maori relationship, colonial attitude, Victorian impact (gold extraction and sewage schemes), acclimatisation, hydro-electric dams, recreational pioneers, flood control, conservation efforts and measures and, most topically, farming effects. So much achieved in such tight compass, there is a sense here of disciplined discard.

Almost inevitable in a thematic work of such comprehensiveness is that related events noted in one chapter may be left out of another. For example, in her discussion on trout, Knight addresses the rapid demise of koaro, a signature fish for Ngati Tuwharetoa in the Taupo district, following the exotic’s introduction. But in coverage of the Tongariro Power Scheme, the teeming losses of koaro as Lake Rotoaira was engineered from Maori larder to power scheme balance tank – amply described to the Waitangi Tribunal by eye witnesses – are not mentioned.

The tension between utility and ­protection is a constant, with the role of the protectors intensifying in the face of the demands of modernisation, effects of increased population and, more particularly, of dairying. In measured analysis, Knight steps us through the “dirty dairying” campaign, the more recent accords and the Land and Water Forum’s ­collaborative efforts to protect river integrity, including our seriously threatened indigenous biota. Sadly, this intention has fallen well short of winning over the Government to desired national policy statements. But communities’ successes, as with the Nelson district’s Sherry River, and the ongoing work of Fish & Game NZ, among others, are also discussed.

Fortuitously, the book includes a ­dramatic picture of a canoeist shooting a boil of water on the wild Waitaha River. Since publication, the Waitaha has been tagged as a river for a hydro scheme by Westpower, and Conservation Minister Maggie Barry backs it. As Knight ­carefully puts it, “The economy is powered by market demand, not social approval.” The battles never end.

NEW ZEALAND’S RIVERS: AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY, by Catherine Knight (Canterbury University Press, $49.99)

David Young is a former journalist who writes largely about conservation history and environmental resource management. His most recent book was Rivers: New Zealand’s Shared Legacy (Random House).

This article was first published in the January 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.