Our rivers are a dam disgrace


If you haven’t already, consider putting aside a lazy hour over the next couple of weekends to watch the final two episodes of Rivers (Prime, Sunday, 7.30pm). You won’t be disappointed. 

Presented by well-known Kiwi landscape photographer and conservator Craig Potton, the five-part series has already examined the Clutha, Mokihinui and Waikato waterways, shining the spotlight on not only the magnificence of the New Zealand countryside, but the now pressing threat from increasing man-made exploitation. 

It was instructional last week, in particular, as Potton navigated the pristine waters of the Waikato at their source to the dirty, polluted, discharge at Port Waikato, to hear freshwater ecologist Mike Joy explaining precisely how bad the situation had become for the country’s longest river. 

As Joy pointed out to Potton, two thirds of New Zealand’s native fish numbers are now on the threatened species list. Analysis of data suggests that if the current rate of decline in water quality continues, all will be extinct by 2050. If that was happening to our bird-life there would be hell to pay. 

The picture Potton drew for viewers was that, while tourism and hydro dams had clearly contributed to the decline, the million-plus head of cows in the Waikato, the result of a recent intensification in the industry, was hitting the waterway the hardest. 

The run-off from fertilizers combined with the equivalent effluent of a human population of four million, meant the river wasn’t fit to swim in by the time it got to Huntly, let alone provide reliable food for locals, or anything else. 

It was a fascinating episode that offered up a disturbing paradox of New Zealand landscape – unforgettable mountain vistas and river valleys, mixed with a growing realisation that the entire ecosystem was now under serious threat. 

Apart from anything else, Potton, an executive member of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, deserved credit last week for not jumping down the throat of energy analyst Steve Goldthorpe, who continually suggested that once built, hydro dams caused no harm to the environment. 

It was Potton himself who had to point out that one of the biggest reasons behind the attrition rate of native fish was the extensive damming; that is, the various species could no longer swim up the river system. There are eight dams between Taupo and Port Waikato alone. 

And if all this seemed to be chilling news about the Waikato, Potton was also able to show us the abysmal state of its biggest tributary, the Waipa; now the subject of a multi-million dollar Government drive to clean it up. 

Potton said before the series that he’d felt nervous in his first experience in front of the camera, but believed television filming was the ideal medium for waterways as it was able to capture one of their most essential elements – motion. 

He’s right, and the result is another excellent Kiwi travelogue hard on heels of Marcus Lush’s South and Jeremy Wells’ Birdland. Don’t miss the last two episodes – this week the Clarence, followed by the Rangitata.