Abundance and Constraint:

A short history of water use in New Zealand


Robert Garry Law


Published by Maruiwi Press


Maruiwi Press


Original 2008

Revised second edition 2010

This booklet is published in electronic form only.

ISBN 978-0-473-13754-0



Abundance and constraint - A short history of water use in New Zealand




Maori water use and management 

European colonisation and early industry

Logging and saw milling

Alluvial and hard rock gold / bullion mining 

State and other hydroelectricity 

Politics and early legislation 

River and lake navigation 

Water for supply and disposal 


Flood protection 


Underground water 

Irrigation schemes 

Other uses 

Environmentalism, ownership and allocation

What can we see as an overview 

End note

The author 

Select bibliography 




New Zealand has a seeming abundance of fresh water, but through its short history there has been conflict over its use. Water has been important for energy generation and continues to be so. It has also been important in transport, irrigation and waste disposal. Water engineering skills developed for extractive industries have been re-deployed into more sustainable uses. Conflicts between fisheries and a range of water uses have existed from the 19th century. There is a long history of legislation on water, much of it to resolve conflict. Constraint is more apparent now than in the past and will be a feature of New Zealand water use in the future


My theme is restricted to fresh water.

New Zealand has a dynamic natural water environment. Within the last two millennia Lake Taupo has filled and lowered after a volcanic debris dam at its exit burst, Lake Tarawera has burst through a volcanic debris dam at its exit on two occasions, Lake Waikaremoana, formed by a huge landslide has filled. Lake Rotomahana has been emptied by an eruption, subsequently refilled as a larger lake and the world’s largest recorded geyser – the Waimangu geyser - has played on its shores. Lake Omapere has reformed. Mount Taranaki and Mount Ruapehu have generated many lahars affecting the waterways they flowed into. In the South Island the glaciers have advanced and retreated in this time.

Fig 1. Waimangu Geyser

These massive natural events, dramatic though they were, pale somewhat in comparison to the effects of man in the past century and a half, where water has been managed to human ends.

Maori water use and management

Polynesians settled some very water short islands, so the fundamental cultural need was not for water in great amounts.

The coral atolls, both the raised atolls and newer low atolls do not have streams and most of them have no surface water. Easter Island has no streams and some of the smaller high islands inhabited temporarily by Polynesians, like Pitcairn, Henderson, Necker and Nihoa do not either.

The lakes and rivers of New Zealand must have been an extraordinary sight to the first Polynesian voyagers here. The rivers would have vastly exceeded the scale of the streams they would have known in the high islands of eastern Polynesia. The often used names for rivers: Awaroa - long river, Awanui - large river, Wairoa - long water, (the Wai names applied to salt as well as fresh water bodies), Wainui - large water, Waikato – flowing water, Wairere – waterfall river and the naming of Waikaremoana as a moana – a sea, all capture some of that, even if the initial wonder is now beyond record and must be our supposition1.

Fig 2. Maori rock drawing illustrating a bundle raft – mokihi

New water phenomena needed new names. Huka the Polynesian word for foam was also applied here to frozen water with additions to differentiate snow, hail and frost. Puia – hot spring/geyser (and crater) - is another word frequent in place names.

The food resources in the rivers and lakes were noticed. Kaituna is a frequently used waterway name – tuna are eels, koura applied to inland places likewise – koura are freshwater crayfish. Kakahi – freshwater mussel – is also common in place names.

The often used three part identification of an iwi with a river as well as a mountain and an ancestor is another indication that rivers loomed larger with Maori than they did in their tropical homeland.

Tainui can illustrate this:

Taupiri te maunga, Waikato te awa, Te Wherowhero te tangata.

Taupiri is the Mountain, Waikato is the river, Te Wherowhero is the man.

Indeed rivers must have loomed large for practical reasons. They were an impediment to travel where they flow across a route. Drowning was a very common cause of death in early colonial New Zealand, often in crossing rivers. Maori were presented with the same challenge.

The rivers and lakes were used for internal transport, by canoes primarily but occasionally rafts. After the coastal areas had been cleared of forest, trees for large canoes had to be sourced inland. The Rotorua Lakes area was known as a source of canoes. Transport of these to the sea started well before the famous Hongi Hika raid on the area, where he took some canoes inland and more out. The canoe portages he used existed before his use of them. Another important portage was that from the Waikato River to the Manukau Harbour, linking as it did to onward portages to the Tamaki River and from the Waitemata to the Kaipara Harbour.

Accounts of early European travellers make frequent reference to acquiring passage on a lake and along or across a river by canoe. In the 1850s the Auckland Provincial Council voted money to clear the Awaroa Stream on the Waikato - Manukau portage, important then in Maori trade to Auckland.

Springs and streams met the water needs. There were no waterborne diseases to trouble them.

There was a long list of fish that were taken. Freshwater crayfish and mussels and fin fish were used, including eels, grayling, whitebait, adult galaxids and lamprey.

Rights of use of fisheries were not simply related to the adjacent land use. Maori resource use rights were not always a matter of contiguous areas. Often rights existed remote from normal places of residence and fishing rights were examples of this. Fisheries rights were disputed as were land use rights.

The boundaries of some of the prestigious fishing rights in the Rotorua Lakes area were marked by poles set up in the lake beds. Pou rahui poles were known in other parts of the country making eel fishing boundaries. We can see here then the beginnings of allocation of water resources pre-dating European colonisation.

Traditional Maori eel fishing with weirs persist in some parts of the country. Lamprey (piharau/korokoru) fishing by gaffs continues but not with weirs as in the past.

Water haulage was in gourds. Clearly this was primarily for drinking. For more extravagant use people went to the water rather than bringing it to them.

Some early burials have perforated moa eggs buried with them. These have been interpreted as water bottles but they would be less practical than gourds, which should have been here from first settlement. In my view they were perforated to stop them exploding when cooked. Those eggs with burials may be food offerings like the joints of moa that are also with some.

Waitapu – (not wahi tapu but wai tapu) are places where water was used for ritual purposes. Some Maori practise ritual use of water in natural places to this day. Waitapu reportedly were mostly natural places. At least one was embellished – with a rock cut channel that diverted water past a pool and a face carved above the pool.

There are Maori proverbial sayings relating to water and rivers. One will suffice here:

He huahua te kai pai? he wai te kai pai.

Are preserved birds the best food? Water is the better!

- which is about the necessity of both food and water.

Some deep shafts in living sites, like deep bell shaped kumara storage pits, have been interpreted as cisterns for water storage but the evidence is equivocal – they may be food storage pits. Keeping rainwater away from stored kumara is key to stopping fungal rots. Some archaeological excavations of rectangular storage pits have revealed floor drains, sometimes with rock slab covers, some leading to sumps, others leading to short tunnelled outlets and sometimes organised to drain more than one storage pit.

Fig 3. Maori slope drains Tupou Bay, Northland.

Water management was a serious issue in Maori horticulture. In Northland many coastal gardens used by Maori were on north facing slopes. Commonly these have spaced ditches running down the slope. A few have regularly spaced contour ditches linked to them. Perhaps more once had these latter features as soil creep and erosion would fill them more quickly than the down-slope ditches. The ditches often continue on sites that flatten to level ground. Archaeologists commonly call these drains. It would appear the purpose of some of these was to control storm runoff, preventing sheet erosion of cultivated soil. They may have had a secondary function of being boundaries, but boundaries to gardens elsewhere are more widely spaced (Figure 3).

Fig 4. Maori wetland drainage near Kaitaia.

The other spectacular horticultural archaeological features in Northland are the wetland drains. Large areas of these are known around Kaitaia (Figure 4). It would appear wetlands were drained by Maori for cultivation in this area.

The principal crop grown here was kumara. It yields well in low rainfall years so irrigation was not needed.

Pondfield cultivation of taro is not recorded here. In tropical Polynesia it is common on well-watered high islands fed by diversion canals from streams and in created swamps on low islands. Taro was introduced and grown here but in natural rather than created wetlands. Perhaps taro was not productive enough here to justify the effort in creating pondfields.

Maori construction of canals to promote eeling have been claimed for several places in New Zealand. Certainly channels were built in the barriers of closed lakes to direct migrating eels to traps. I have doubts as to whether the Wairau canals are artificial as often claimed. They are more like natural distribution channels one finds on river deltas.

European colonisation and early industry

The first European visitors to New Zealand lacked effective technology to condense fresh water from sea water. Hence obtaining and storing fresh water supplies for their ships was a priority. Cook in landing in New Zealand had a need to restore his ship’s water supplies. On the first voyage he did that in several places but Cooks Cove at Tolaga Bay is arguably the best known.

That started a long tradition of ships watering here. Later, an important part of early public supplies was the ability to water ships in wharves. Indeed today New Zealand is still regarded by sailors as a good place for visiting ships to recharge freshwater tanks

An early jetty in Auckland, Wynyard Pier, operated from 1851 and was built to water ships. It was fed by a timber flume from the Eden Crescent spring, well before there was a piped supply to any other part of Auckland.

The consumption of water by the few early inhabitants of colonial New Zealand was easily met by springs, rain barrels, cisterns and bucket wells. However the application of water to energy and inland water to navigation were practises the colonial settlers brought with them. The gold seekers brought application of water to mining from earlier use in rushes in Australia and California.

The first capital Auckland, was selected as a site partly because of its potential for inland communication by water. Reverend Henry Williams advised Hobson about the access to the interior by the Waihou and the Waikato Rivers and how a site on the Waitemata Harbour gave ready access to these.

Wheat was much more extensively grown in early New Zealand than is often realised. In the mid-century the prairies of Canada had not been opened by railroads. American wheat was restricted through the Civil War period, was not transportable to the US west coast until after the completion of the US transcontinental railroad link in 1869 (Canada’s link was not until 1885) and the Australian wheat country was similarly still undeveloped until railways reached the wheat belt in the 1870s. Wheat was grown widely in New Zealand and water mills were built to grind it (Figure 5). Many a Mill Rd can be found in our towns – a relic usually of a water powered mill – but sometimes wind was used. Carlton Mill Rd in Christchurch recalls one water powered mill on the Avon and there were two others elsewhere on that river.

Fig 5. Percy’s Mill. Lower Hutt.
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Many mills were Maori owned before the New Zealand wars. They mostly had short lives. Their development had been encouraged by the Government who had the office of inspector of mills established to assist Maori to build mills. Some were built by Pakeha for Maori clients. A surviving water powered mill is the Kawana Mill of 1854 near Wanganui. Kawana is a reference to Governor Grey who assisted in its creation. Petchey’s study of Otago waterwheels (1996) showed what a great variety of wheels were used here. Some sophisticated features were curved buckets, ventilated buckets, spoked wheels and ring gear.

The opening of the Australian wheat lands collapsed the market price here and wheat growing retreated to the climatically most suited areas in New Zealand, the South Island east coast plains, though the Manawatu persisted for a good period. The water power opportunities were limited on the South Island plains without massive headrace engineering. Milling of grain using water power close to its point of harvest became rare. Steam powered roller mills at population centres became the norm. Two exceptions to the centralisation of mills on towns were on the Canterbury Plains, a water powered mill at Wakanui near Ashburton and another, first water powered, later electrically powered, at Winchester, South Canterbury. The latter still stands. Both were based on the smaller rivers of the plains which lie between the fans of the major rivers and must have offered better opportunities for diversion into headraces.

Brewing was an industry with early need for high quality water supplies. Many of the early breweries were sited near to reliable good quality water supplies. In Dunedin – the Leith, in Auckland the Eden Crescent spring and the volcanic aquifer in Khyber Pass Rd attracted no less then five breweries. Some modern breweries remain on the early sites even if the water used now comes from town supplies.

Another early industry with a water demand was paper making. Two sites, those of Woodhaugh on the Leith Stream near Dunedin and Riverhead near Auckland established at sites of former flour mills (the Riverhead site was an even earlier 1855 timber mill, water fed via a 3km race), while the third at Mataura was attracted to the resources at the falls on the Mataura River. The resources there were water power from the falls, a clean adjacent stream for water for pulp washing (the Mataura was too turbid from gold working) and the lignite coal adjacent for heat and tussock grass which was an ingredient of early South Island paper. Mill waste was discharged to the Mataura. The water energy was not tapped without a fight. The falls had been designated a flour mill reserve and local farm interests opposed the paper mill until the paper enterprise was obliged to build a flour mill on the opposite bank to the paper mill. Early use at the paper mill was by an undershot waterwheel fed by a kilometre long race, the wheel supplemented and then replaced by a series of turbines initially doing direct drive duty and ultimately powering electricity generation. There is still generation at the site.

The flour mill was replaced by a freezing works which obtained a half share of the water, diverted by a jointly built weir. It was this works that first generated electricity from the flow and exported some of the power.

More recent paper factories have had similar water and power needs. The Tasman Mill site at Kawerau was chosen for its water source, the geothermal steam potential and shamefully because the lower Tarawera River was seen as a disposable asset for the discharge of waste.

The 1884 sugar refinery at Chelsea on Auckland Harbour also needed water. Its source was Duck Creek which entered the harbour by deep water suitable for a wharf. Two brick dams were built to enhance the source. Today they are a recreation and wildlife asset.

Fig 6. Chelsea Sugar Works. The dams can be seen to the right.

The fellmongery at Panmure and the abattoir and freezing works at Westfield, both in Auckland, were located on volcanic aquifer water sources.

Logging and saw milling

Many early sawmills were powered by water but steam powered mills burning waste from the mill rapidly became the norm. Water was important in the Kauri logging areas for transporting logs. Felled kauri were trimmed into logs, rolled into streams and hooshed down the streams by sudden releases from driving dams (Figures 7, 8). The gates in the dams were timber and often designed to pass logs floating in the stored water behind (Figure 8). Some dams were built entirely of timber and in others only the gates were timber and the rest earth. An estimated 1000 dams are believed to have been built. Most had short lives. They were built as late as 1920s and operated into the 1940s. Few now remain in anything like complete condition. Driven logs were most often caught in booms at the foot of the streams but sometimes behind dams at the stream mouth. Where there was a local sawmill the logs were hauled directly up a ramp to the mill. Some early examples of holding dams also had waterwheels to power the sawmill. In other cases the logs from the booms were sea transported by rafting or carried on scows to large central sawmills.

Fig 7. Kauri Dam, Glenesk near Piha, Auckland. The central section trips open to release water and any logs in the pond.
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Fig 8. Log driving at Goldies Bush, Waitakere Ranges. The tripped dam can be seen in the background.
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Lowland waterways were used as well. Logs from the extensive kahikatea forests on the Waihou River levees were hauled on tramways to the river and rafted to a mill at Turua on the lower river and turned into butter boxes for local and Australian use, while the land they came from was turned into dairy farms.

The use of streams for log transport was inimical with Maori fishing in those streams. Eel weirs were certainly incompatible. Sawmills by streams often discharged sawdust to the stream. The early acclimatisation societies objected to the practice. More than one Coromandel Peninsula harbour has a distinct layer of sawdust and wood waste layered in its sediment, resulting from the sawmill waste disposal.

Reputedly the earliest Canterbury water powered mill was that built by the Pavitt brothers in Robinsons Bay Akaroa in 1854. Mr Edward Baigent built a water powered sawmill in the Eighty Eight Valley near Wakefield in Nelson, found it too small and converted it to a flour mill and built a larger water powered sawmill. The sawn timber was initially rafted down the Waiiti River to the river mouth port. Baignet has his name associated with the timer industry to this day.

Flumes, much used in the USA, were not used here for moving logs, rather tramways and bullock haul roads dominated away from the areas where driving in streams was possible.

Lakes were used for rafting timber. Logs cut around Rotoiti were floated across that lake to a sawmill at Mourea. Timber from there went by barge to the railhead at Rotorua. The rafting of logs on Rotoiti destroyed the Maori system of fishing boundary markers.

Lake Wakatipu shores were also exploited for timber. There was a water powered sawmill at Greenstone at the head of the lake. Some of the early steamers on the lake hauled the timber away (Figure 9). Timber from the head of Lake Wanaka was rafted down the lake, and even down the Clutha to Cromwell.

Fig 9. Greenstone on Lake Wakatipu. A water powered sawmill and the steamer Antrim in place to haul the sawn timber. J Gibb,1882

Lakes Forsyth and Ellesmere were also used for timber transport. Timber from Banks Peninsular was milled at Little River and punted to the other end of Lake Forsyth, carried on a tram or drays to Kaitorete Spit and moved by paddle steamers on the lake to timber landings on the western side of Lake Ellesmere.

The steam powered mills typically did not condense steam for reuse so a supply of make up water was needed. Where there was a good supply water was often used for flushing away sawdust, saving the energy to run a drag chain and removing the fire danger of the sawdust pile.

Water to move a product was not limited to timber though. Near Denniston a timber flume was used to move coal from the Cascade Mine down to the railway in the Buller River Valley (Figure 10). The flume emptied into a self draining bin at Rewanui railway yard. The 11 km long flume operated for 80 years until 1970. Given the frequency of flumes as part of water races it is perhaps surprising they were not put to more use like this. A modern use of water to move coal is at Pike River Coal on the West Coast. Water from their coal slurry pipeline is recycled back to the mine for reuse.

Fig 10. Flume for water transport of coal. Cascade Creek, Buller, West Coast 1945.
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Alluvial and hard rock gold / bullion mining

Surface gold mining was a prodigous user of water. In the areas where hydraulic sluicing was possible there were substantial water engineering feats, building races and flumes, head ponds and channelling the water to erode the gold bearing gravel.

It is ironic that the major alluvial gold fields were in the areas of the greatest abundance of water and the greatest shortage of it - the West Coast and Otago.

While Otago has large rivers flowing through it, these are sourced in the western mountains and the local streams often have low flows. What saved Otago was the rugged basin and range topography – low rainfall was compensated by head available from the upland streams, even if there were still seasonal availability problems.

Ground sluicing needed no head beyond getting water to the top of the face to be mined. Hydraulic sluicing using jets from monitors fed by pipes, needed more head and hydraulic elevating (which uses venturi suction) needed still more. Broadly this was the sequence of use, though all of the technologies existed from the beginning. The length of the races tended to grow as more remote streams had to be tapped to get the elevation needed. Many of the ground sluicing races were very short from a local stream, but not always. Some ground sluicing used races from a head pond fed in turn by a long race. In these cases many mining operations may have been fed from the one race. Jones (n.d.) has shown that on the Shotover the size of the head ponds were matched to daily variations in water use, rather than of a size to smooth any longer variation of supply.

Fig 11. Ground sluicing, Switzers Claim, Otago.
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Fig 12. "Herring bone" tailings, Central Otago.

Before elevating became dominant, tail races (sometimes called sludge canals) were very important to remove the waste. Most of these are now buried but they were just as important as the head races to get at the deepest gold bearing layers. If they were too flat or too much coarse material was placed in them they choked. The early sluicing operations have substantial areas of hand stacked large stone that was too large to put into the tail race (Figure 12). Tailraces were often used by several parties. The commercial considerations around these were often as important as for head races. Some water races served no other purpose than to flush the tail races. Hydraulic elevating removed mining from some of the tyranny of the level of the tail race but it came at the cost of much more water. Some of the picturesque lakes in Otago such as the Blue Lake at wonderful St Bathans are the result of elevator mining. Jones (2007:244-256) has an account of goldmining remains that can be visited in Otago.

Fig 13. Elevator mining.

Fig 14. Hydraulic sluicing.

More than a few races have served later for irrigation and water supply. Dunedin’s Deep Stream supply uses an old gold mining race and there are others. Many races operated on the complete diversion of the stream. This is inimical to fisheries and Otago water use consents are only just beginning to correct this imbalance.

The tailings in rivers from both alluvial and hard rock mining often caused problems. Nowhere was this worse than in the Ohinemuri/Waihou Rivers draining from the Waihi/ Karangahake batteries. They were officially declared sludge canals in 1895 and vast quantities of cyanide contaminated silt were discharged into them. The silt deposited on the lower river banks caused flooding and huge controversy. The Maori eel and inaga fishery in the river was destroyed in the process, and navigation damaged. Across the nation 51 rivers were declared sludge canals by 1907. It was only on declared canals that compensation was payable to people with riparian rights that had been damaged. The Crown paid this and this liability is not unrelated to the enthusiasm to create the Queen’s chain along waterways, so as to limit the Crown’s liability for compensation. Riparian rights for new land titles ended in New Zealand law in 1875 for just this reason. In Otago farmland was rendered flood prone as a result of watercourses being choked and other land was buried under mining debris. Taieri Lake in the upper reaches of the Taieri River was filled with debris and is no more.

Disturbance to streams in gold mining is not all in the past. Operations in rivers with hydraulic diggers and modern screening plants continue on the West Coast to today and have been controversial in their effect on the fine sediment load in streams.

Some of the races brought water a substantial distance. The Mt Ida Race completed in 1877 is 107 km long. It crosses the Clutha to Taieri catchment boundary. Of contemporary utilities only telegraph lines exceeded this reach. No single piece of modern water infrastructure extends as far.

Sluicing for gold was used in Southland, Otago, the West Coast and Golden Bay. Dredges were used over the same range.

A late use of hydraulic sluicing was for tin mining on Stewart Island. The archaeological remains there of this sluicing operation are among the best preserved hydraulic mining remains in New Zealand. Those in Otago have often been changed by modern development. On the West Coast they are often better preserved but under regenerating bush, so not easy to see. A site with some interpretation is Waikoropupu Springs in Golden Bay.

Stamper batteries and other rock reduction devices like berdans and roll crushers were the necessary part of hard rock mining and often ran on water power. Waterwheels powered some (Figure 16). Turbines of greater efficiency were used later. There are three sites known where Whitelaw reaction turbines were used. Continuing to the end of the 19th century, they were technically redundant by this time. Where more head was available Pelton wheels were used. Usually these were supplied by run of stream supplies but occasionally there were dams. At Big River on the West Coast there was a substantial timber storage dam on the river releasing water to an intake some distance below.

The first hydroelectric power scheme in New Zealand, that of the Phoenix Quartz Mining Co Dynamo on Shotover Valley, Central Otago, was commissioned in 1886 (Ritchie 1985). It was built to overcome a problem in getting water to the mine site. Rather electricity was taken instead.

Water was sold to miners from commercial water undertakings. It was measured by the miners inch or by the ‘head’ – a cubic foot per second. In the rest of the English speaking miners’ world an inch was the flow through a one inch square orifice. Here it was the flow through a one inch vertical slot, a much greater quantity. Reportedly the water undertakings were often more profitable than the sluicing operations they fed. Wardens courts were often dealing with disputes over water, using concepts of justice that came with the miners – an early example of globalisation setting the legal system. Victorian mining law set the precedent for New Zealand and early officials came from there too. New Zealand learnt from the Eureka revolt and avoided any repetition here.

Dredging succeeded sluicing as the major method of retrieving alluvial gold. Bucket dredges built from the 1870s needed substantial power. The river current driving paddlewheels powered a few early dredges working in river beds and river beach deposits. Being current powered limited the amount of material that could be tackled without destroying the current by tailings deposits or by moving away from the river. An external power source was needed to be more effective. Steam powered dredges built from 1881 were succeeded in turn by electrically powered dredges and both worked far from the rivers in what is termed paddock dredging. With electric dredges the weight of machinery that had to be supported was reduced and the difficulty of loading fuel was avoided. The first electrical dredge was commissioned in 1890, with development moving to three phase AC powered dredges a few years later. Tailings elevators used from 1894, were the last technical development needed for dredges to become fully versatile. At the peak of dredging in the early 1900s most were still steam powered. Dredges operated until the 1950s in Otago and the Grey River Dredge still exists on the West Coast, incorporating parts of an earlier dredge that operated at Kaniere from 1938 (See Jones 2007:214).

Fig 15. Dredging tailings on the Ohinemuri River. The silt from the mine waste can be seen on the river bank.
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Where did the electricity come from for the first electric dredges? It was before the days of national grids and publicly owned generation. Local hydroelectric power was a source. The dredge owners developed their own, mostly quite close to the point of use (Figure 19).

A few dredges were water powered, with an on-board Pelton wheel fed by an articulated penstock supported on pontoons. Other dredges tried suction pumping and hydraulic elevating techniques but they were usually thwarted by boulders.

Fig 16. Water powered stamper battery. An incline to bring ore to the site can be seen behind the building.
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Some hydro generation used the races now redundant from sluicing as a source of water. Races were also needed to maintain the level of some dredge ponds where the dredges were working in terraces above the natural ground water level.

The hydroelectric plants often lasted no longer than a particular dredge site but some continued to be the early providers of reticulated electricity in Otago. Later the power board-owned Roaring Meg hydro plant became the major provider of power to the Central Otago dredging operations. Its construction was assisted by mining company grants. The Kaniere Forks station on the West Coast, fed by 9km of water race was built to power a gold dredge but serves on as an asset of one of the national generation companies.

Fig 17. Dredging at Lowburn on the Clutha River in the 1920s.
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Fig 18. A steam dredge on the Buller River

Fig 19.
Earnscleugh Gold Dredging Co, Fraser River generators. C. 1914.

We might sniff at the destruction caused by disposing of tailings to waterways and the tailings dumps on worked over land. But we have not much reason to be superior. Today we dump excessive nutrients to waterways and groundwater and our land development practices capture only a proportion of the silt they generate. The rest goes into streams and rivers.

State and other hydroelectricity

The allure of turning water power into transportable electrical power was obviously considerable. The expansion of hydroelectricity continues today. High head hydraulic machines like Pelton wheels are relatively simple machines, easily controlled as to speed. They were the first applied. Lower head turbines are a lot more efficient than the older waterwheel technology but are more complicated and their speed control more demanding. Both quickly replaced waterwheels for direct energy and for electrical generation.

In 1886, the same year as the Phoenix mine supply, Eichardts Hotel in Queenstown had electrical lighting generated by a Pelton wheel running off the town water supply. The first public supplies of power were in Reefton in 1888 where a company provided electricity from a partly tunnelled race fed hydro generator. Other municipal schemes followed. Stratford (the North Island’s first), Patea, Parihaka, Hawera and Te Aroha all commissioned early hydrogeneration schemes. That of Patea reused a flourmill water source. The remote hotel at Pipiriki on the Whanganui had a generator on a dam converted from a flour mill.

Direct industrial use of hydroelectricity was made of the Mataura Falls from 1890, with turbines generating electricity initially for the meat works. Some electricity was sold in the nearby towns of Mataura and Gore.

Fig 20. Okere Falls power station on the Kaituna River

The Waipori hydro power scheme started as a private venture but the Dunedin City Council refused the company the right to distribute power in the city and the municipality took the scheme over as its own. It completed the scheme’s first of many stages in 1907. That was in municipal terms a large scheme, reflecting Dunedin’s then status as a wealthy business centre.

The principal North Island industrial centre in the early 1900s was the mining town of Waihi. There were batteries at Waihi and later Waikino batteries. Water energy was used at Waihi from 1889 using Pelton wheels fed by a race from timber dams and at Waikino through turbines in direct drives and later in 1902, generating electricity from the same turbines. At nearby Waitekauri another company generated hydropower for mining use from 1899 using Pelton wheels.

The railway reached Waihi in 1905 making coal more readily available as an energy source, using steam turbine driven generators. But the lowering grade of the ore needed a still cheaper power source to sustain the mine. The response was the privately built Horahora scheme on the Waikato River, built at the site of rapids. A power line over the Kaimai Range delivered the energy to Waihi. The scheme was nationalised not long after its completion in 1913 and the station was eventually flooded by the Karapiro Lake in 1947. The power line outlasted both the generating station and the mine. The power line was also used to link to the McLaren Falls scheme near Tauranga to allow power sales from that scheme to Auckland, so delivery of power through lines of separate ownership is not new. Its voltage, 50KV, set the standard for North Island transmission which persists after station and power line are long gone.

The Ross gold mines also had a substantial hydro power scheme from 1909, at Kaniere Forks. The power was used for mine pumping. The first state scheme was that on Okere Falls on the Kaituna River commissioned in 1901. At the time there was no local government in Rotorua – the Crown had the role. The scheme was developed for the town lighting and powering of sewerage pumps for Rotorua. Its engineer, Lawrence Birks, went on to play a leading role in subsequent state power developments.

The Coleridge, Monowai, Waikaremoana and Mangahao developments were the early state hydro schemes. As they were completed a national grid covering each of the islands emerged. The ongoing development of the Waikato, Waikaremoana, Cobb, Waitaki, Rangitaiki, Tongariro, Clutha and Manapouri will be well known to most.

Fig 21. Roxburgh Dam on the Clutha

Coleridge started a pattern of collection of multiple catchments into hydropower schemes. The initial lake scheme of 1914 was added to by diversions from the Harper River (1921), Acheron River (1930) and Wilberforce River (1977). All were part of the original concept. The turbines expanded from three to nine in the process. Like diversion schemes featured in the Mangahao, Upper Waitaki and Tongariro schemes and while these were staged, they were not so drawn out as the Coleridge scheme.

The official history of state hydropower development tends to concentrate on the Lake Coleridge and subsequent schemes as the pioneers. Many other smaller local schemes were also built, of a scale suited to the local demand.

In the Bay of Plenty as an example, Omanawa Falls (1915), McLaren Falls (1921) and Karaponga (1922) schemes were all built under local initiatives. All relied on falls for location. All are now decommissioned, either by-passed or of too small a scale to sustain. On the West Coast there is a sizeable number of small schemes developed for local use, mostly run-of-stream.

A happy survival of this era is the 1925 Waikoropupu hydro station near Takaka, re-commissioned by the Pupu Hydro Society, still producing power to 0.8 megawatts and now attracting tourists as a working museum. It was built using an earlier gold sluicing race. Another is the 1924 One Mile Stream power station which served Queenstown until 1966 and has recently been restored.

A social history is connected to the large power projects, Turangi, Twizel, Cromwell and Roxburgh. All had booms associated with the work and were quieter after (See Sheridan 1995 for Twizel).

A burst of activity by power boards about 1980 added more local hydro schemes, rather too many of which ran over budget, some had serious engineering problems and most were poor investments. The State investment in the Clyde Dam was known at the outset as being a dubious one on a return basis and turned out far worse after the foundation and lakeshore stability problems were addressed. It outclassed the smaller schemes on the score of un-recovered capital investment.

Fig 22. Lake Pukaki in the process of conversion to a storage lake. It now has a 13.8m operating range.

The outcome of the hydropower development is a system which delivers cheap, if drought-prone power, meeting over 70% of electrical energy needs in normal years, but at a cost of the loss of many natural waterways.

Politics and Early legislation

With all this water use it is hardly surprising that there was some comprehensive water law. Mining legislation covered the use of water in gold mining. In provinces with gold this commenced under the provincial governments. Otago had mining legislation from 1858. The Water Supply Act of 1891 ran to 59 provisions. That the law was in active use is shown by it being amended in 1892, 1894, 1895, 1897 and 1898.

There was also a separate law for timber driving. There were timber floating acts of 1873 and 1884. The first was passed as a consequence of the destruction of an eel weir and a successful prosecution of the perpetrator by the Maori weir owner.

These timber acts contained powers to clear rivers for navigation – resisted by Maori at passage because of the fishing consequences. The acts provided for licensing of operations. The Floatage of Timber Act 1873 allowed compensation for destruction of weirs but not for loss of fisheries.

Fig 23. The history of early national water legislation.

River Boards Acts of 1884 and 1908 empowered the flood protection and some drainage works. Parts of the latter are still in force. A Land Drainage Act of 1893 empowered local works by local authorities. Special land drainage acts were passed for particular areas, such as the Hauraki Plains Act of 1908, the Christchurch District Drainage Act of 1875 was an early one, reflecting the dire local need. A general act, the Swamp Drainage Act was passed in 1915. Important later legislation was the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act 1941 and the Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967.

From 1903 the Government pre-empted by legislation the use of hydroelectric station sites but the act allowed delegation of use of sites to local authorities. This was tightened by further legislation in 1910.

Early forestry legislation had an explicit expectation of retaining forests and establishing new ones so as to attract rain – as was widely believed until well into this century. Settler demand for cleared land rendered this legislation ineffective. The benefits of forests to water – which lie elsewhere – were thus lost until well into the 20th century.

Some political reputations were built with some help from water matters. Richard Seddon was an advocate in the Warden’s Courts on the West Coast, often on water matters and later in Parliament took a parochial interest in local water matters like the Kumara sludge canal, before becoming Premier. Gordon Coates built his reputation before becoming Prime Minister, as Minister of Public Works at the time of the first Waitaki and Waikato hydro works.

Some fortunes were sought likewise. Once out of office, former minister Thomas Russell used his political influence to try to make a fortune from the Piako swamp drainage and the sale of the drained land, but the venture proved a financial disaster.

River and lake navigation

River and lake navigation was important in early transport of goods in New Zealand, before effective roads and the railway extended their coverage. The former river navigation on the Waikato and Whanganui will be familiar to many. Settler navigation of the Waikato started in the New Zealand Wars with craft specially built in Australia. They were quickly succeeded by private craft, some operating over the bar but others using Mercer as a railhead port to access Auckland. Shipping on the Whanganui was also important. It damaged Maori eel weirs and also came into conflict with a party wanting to raft logs on the river. Other minor rivers had periods of being navigated. Much of the other navigation was an extension of the coastal transport that was important until the early 20th century. Navigation spans in older bridges like that at Kopu and others on the Waihou are a legacy of this.

The Lake Wakatipu shipping has already been mentioned. Other important lake shipping was on Lakes Wanaka, Te Anau, Rotorua / Rotoiti and Taupo. Wanaka shipping served the sheep runs around the lake. The Te Anau trade started with sheep but moved on to tourism. The Taupo shipping hauled freight to farms around the lake, wool back from the farms and tourists and mail from Taupo to Tokaanu. A schooner and two generations of small steam vessels serviced the needs. There was a coach road from Waiouru to Tokaanu from 1894 but an effective road did not exist from Taupo to Tokaanu until the 1920s. The gap was closed by the lake ferries. From 1895 a tourist route continued to Pipiriki on the Whanganui River then by river to Whanganui. This was an important visitor route until the 1908 completion of the North Island main trunk railway.

The Waihou River was navigated to near Matamata, the Piako to Kerepehi by coastal craft and to Waitoa by smaller craft, the Kaituna River to Te Puke. Cream was collected by launch from the early dairy farms on the Hauraki Plains. Scows hauled road metal on the rivers of these plains from McCallums (Karamuramu) Island, helping seal the fate of the river going craft. The scow Jane Gifford now based at Waiuku as a tourist attraction, was one on this trade. The Buller River was traversed by horse drawn barges as far as Inangahua Landing. In Christchurch transport from Lyttleton was impeded by the Port Hills so small craft performed an important ferry service up in the Avon. Cream was collected by launch from farms on the Mokau – the launch Cygnet is still there and now a tourist venture.

Fig 24. Rail replacing river navigation by scows at Paeroa.

Fig 25. TSS Earnslaw on Wakatipu

River mouth ports were also important: Riverton, Port Molyneux at the Clutha mouth, Westport, Greymouth, Blenheim, Foxton, Patea, Waitara, Mokau, Whakatane, Opotiki, Gisborne, Waikokopu and Wairoa all had river mouth ports, part of a pattern of small harbour ports. Most of these no longer operate. Foxton’s port was a victim of river improvements for flood-way enhancement. Some ceased to operate after floods silted the channels or moved channels away but mostly they died when their scale no longer suited modern shipping and railways reached the areas they serviced.

The early steamers on the southern lakes are well known. The Earnslaw is a happy survivor – now entirely a tourist boat but in relatively recent times still loading wool bales at stations beyond the road network while hauling the then much fewer holiday makers. A restored paddle wheeler, Waimarie, now plies the Wanganui as well, recently joined by the MV Wairua.

Navigation canals were little considered for application in New Zealand. By 1840 in Europe their age had passed and railways were in ascendancy. The colonists here wanted to move directly to railways. A Waikato-Manukau canal, a canal linking the Waitemata and Manukau and the Waitemata and Kaipara Harbours have been considered. Rival locations in Auckland have left a proliferation of Portage Roads, a Canal Road in one of the rival locations, a Canal Reserve in the other, but no canal. In reality the early completion of the railway to Onehunga on the Manukau, Helensville on the Kaipara (initially from Riverhead, later from Auckland) and to Mercer on the Waikato left little scope for these canal schemes. Mercer and Helensville were the points of transfer of goods between rail and shipping.

A minor transport use of some lakes has been by flying boats and float planes. They have mainly been for recreational use and tourist flights. Today jetboats traverse rivers formerly considered impossible for boats. They have both private recreation and tourist uses.

Water for supply and disposal

In 1866 a public supply to Auckland was commenced from the Domain Spring. It was added to on an emergency basis by water from privately owned Seccombes well in Khyber Pass in 1872. The Western Springs development replaced these in 1877 pumped by a massive beam engine that still features in the MOTAT technology museum, which is built around it. The pump has recently been restored to full steam operation. There were two still higher pressure zones pumped by further, now gone, steam driven pumps. The pressure zones though are still with us and some of the cast iron pipes from that development still serve. The next supply was from Nihotupu in the Waitakere Ranges from timber dams and a long pressure main, commissioned in 1902. Waitakere concrete dam with a separate pipeline was commissioned in 1910 but an interim supply was obtained from a timber dam there from 1907. The concrete Nihotupu Dam replaced the timber dam in 1923. Western Springs was relegated to emergency use from 1920 and was last used in 1936. Three other substantial dams followed in the Waitakere Ranges before attention moved to the Hunua Ranges where stream intakes were followed by earth fill dams on four catchments finishing with the largest water supply dam in New Zealand, Mangatangi Dam, completed in 1977. The North Shore of Auckland was supplied from Lake Pupuke for a period – the engine house of one borough supply survives, but mains, first under and then over the harbour brought south shore water which displaced this source.

Underground water from volcanic aquifers was used in several places around Auckland. Only the Onehunga Springs, first used in a supply scheme in 1891, have survived in use, now integrated with the rest of the supply system.

Wellington commenced its public supplies with the lower Karori Dam of earth construction on the Kaiwharawhara stream in 1874. The demand soon overtook the supply and the more challenging Wainuiomata scheme was commenced with an earth dam and a delivery system through a covered race and a tunnel to the Hutt Valley. It was commissioned in 1884. Upper Karori concrete gravity dam was added in 1908, Morton Dam on the Wainuiomata Stream, of buttress design was added in 1911, intakes on the Orongorongo Stream – again with a tunnel supply route – added in 1926 and the Kaitoke intake in 1957. Tapping of the Hutt Valley aquifers for Wellington supply took place in 1935.

Fig 26. Karori Reservoir

Christchurch used its underground water, initially pumping by steam power but after Coleridge, electrically powered pumping predominated. A municipal supply system replaced local wells only quite late in the city’s development and a high pressure system with fire fighting capacity was later still.

Supplies in Dunedin commenced with a public pump fed from a spring. A private supply from the Ross Creek (an earthfill dam) commenced in 1867 but after acrimony with the town Council this was taken over by the council in 1875. Ross Creek Dam is New Zealand’s oldest surviving large dam. A race run supply from Silverstream added to the system in 1881, Sullivans Dam on the Leith in 1916 and more recently the Deep Stream supply and the Taieri River through-bank intakes have been added.

Generally high quality raw water and a diversity of sources have paradoxically been a recent problem for Dunedin as it has received poor ratings for protozoa control and has found the cost of adding to the basic treatment initially needed difficult to manage.

A history of each of the smaller towns’ public supplies would take much space. The character of the works described here, use of underground water when available and small steps in adding to the sources used is typical of many. One town that had many more steps than most is Alexandra (McCraw 2000) where a series of attempts to use mine races failed on grounds of pollution, unreliable engineering and seasonal water shortage.

Water from town supplies was once commonly used for energy. Hydraulic lifts were the norm in the early multi-storey buildings in our cities. The rapidly reducing real cost of electricity rendered these redundant.

Very small towns often had wells, pit toilets and cess pits in close proximity. Hamel (2002) has given us an archaeological account of such a system in Queenstown and linked its demise to the arrival of knowledge of water borne disease. Generally with water supplies went sewerage, replacing backyard cess pits and night soil collection. Despite good water supplies, disease was often prevalent before sewers were installed. Typhoid was common in towns and even plague occurred. The latter triggered the Public Health Act of 1900 which promoted water supply and sewerage. The damp town of Christchurch installed sewers before a municipal water supply so as to fight disease. It succeeded in that. The Drainage Board there was for a time also the Local Board of Health, showing the linkage was well understood. A revealing study of Dunedin’s struggle with waste is that of Wood (2005).

For river towns untreated effluent disposal to rivers was the norm. Wanganui, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Kaiapoi were examples. The practice was little different from coastal towns who discharged to the sea. In public health terms it was much better than backyard disposal but it was not good for the ecology. For towns on large rivers there was little pressure until recently to reach higher standards of treatment.

It was not just towns that used rivers for disposal. Already mentioned have been alluvial and hard rock gold mining and sawmills. Other polluters complained of by early fishermen, if not others, were more rural ones of dairy factories, piggeries, fellmongeries, abattoirs and flax mills. Often these had been established in rural areas where the impacts on people were less, but housing often appeared around them. There was little planning thought given to areas outside the major towns. The draining of the swamps for agriculture was part of the demise of the flax industry and its contribution to pollution. Coal mining and gravel extraction have also contributed to the pollutant loads in rivers and streams.


Land drainage has grossly changed many lowland waterways. New Zealanders are not accustomed to think of wetlands as waterways but that is what they are. The Crown became the lead agency in many drainage schemes, such as the Rangitaiki and Piako but others resulted from more local efforts, such as on the margins of the Kaipara. A sequence of development on the Piako that may be typical elsewhere was local gravity drains, followed by a much larger trunk drainage and stopbank scheme, electric pumping after the arrival of rural electricity supplies which allowed a far greater area to be drained, with rationalisation of the earliest drains and finally re-engineering of the stopbanks in the second half of the 20th century to provide a better flood protection. Priestman dredges were crucial to the major works. Hand labour was replaced by draglines for many smaller channels. On the Piako marine sediments under the lower plains were excavated by cutter suction dredges, forming channels and stopbanks.

In Northland swamps were often found to contain kauri gum from before the swamp formed. Winning this by drainage and excavation often went hand in hand with agricultural development. Some mechanisation was applied to the gum extraction industry washing the gum free of the peat. Some swamps also contain preserved kauri stumps and logs which still are extracted for the timber for special decorative use. There have been modern proposals to mechanically mine wetlands in Northland for gum and there and in the Chatham Islands for peat wax. In the 1980s there was a company called Kaurex operating, attempting to refine the process of gum and peat wax extraction in a Northland swamp but the company failed before it achieving this.

Fig 27. Land drainage near Kaitaia, 1910s.

Fig 28. Priestman barge mounted dredge Rangitaiki River, C 1913. 

Forced drainage of barrier enclosed lagoons became a common practice to better secure the grazing on the margins. The regular opening of the barrier at Lake Onoke destroyed the famous Maori eel fishery there. After a long legal battle there was eventually compensation for this. Land drainage was a critical issue in low lying Christchurch, proceeding along with sewerage. There groundwater had to be drained in many places to allow the sewers to be laid. It was conveyed to open drains and to the natural streams.

All this was destructive of wetlands and the related fisheries. In all New Zealand has lost 85% of its wetlands. No other ecosystem has suffered as much. The water birds have suffered with it. New Zealand lost pelican, coot, bittern, merganser, several ducks and swan populations in the time of Maori, and now, black stilt, crested grebe, blue duck, brown teal and bittern rank as one (top) or two on DOC’s 6 point scale of degree of danger of extinction.

Black stilt  1 Nationally critical
Crested grebe 1 Nationally critical
South Island brown teal  1 Nationally critical
Australasian bittern  2 Nationally endangered
Blue duck, whio 2 Nationally endangered
Brown teal 2 Nationally endangered
New Zealand dabchick 6 Sparse
Marsh crake  6 Sparse
Spotless crake 6 Sparse

Table 1. Water bird status – Department of Conservation.

New Zealand has quite a short list of just five protected wetlands nominated under the Ramsar Convention. Two are inland. For a nation with a long coast line, finding only three coastal wetlands fit to nominate is revealing of the havoc wrought.

Flood protection

Building on low lying land and the loss of forest cover in catchments lead to the need for many flood protection schemes. People have speculated that our British ancestors were naive about the flooding potential here in allowing development in the Hutt Valley and Christchurch. The former at least is incorrect because it was the occurrence of a major flood in the Hutt River which diverted the 1840 settlement from Petone to Thorndon. Short sighted development of towns inside stopbanks originally intended for protecting agriculture against floods of modest probability also occurred, such as in Invercargill. Flooding exposed that folly and later correction to an appropriate protection level was costly.

The Waimakariri River was the terror of Kaiapoi. Christchurch was flooded by Waimakariri water spilling into the Avon in 1868. Earlier floods started a new river channel partly along a deliberate cut across Kaiapoi Island and partly along the race of Coutts’ flour mill. Cuts, some unsuccessful, continued to be made to try to improve the river’s flood capacity. It was not until the 1960s that the river was fully controlled with stopbanks protecting the floodplain. That was not the end of Christchurch’s flooding problems some of which were more local and required sustained efforts by the Drainage Board to control.

The loss of forests certainly caused aggradation in some rivers and more rapid sedimentation where they discharged. The worsening of floods by more rapid run off is often claimed. It is rational but the hard evidence of this does not exist in long runs of reliable flood gauging which cover the transition of the land cover.

The lower reaches of many of the major rivers have flood protection or land drainage schemes, or both. Some such as the Waikato, Manawatu and Ruamahanga have gateway systems to control the use of floodways and lowland lake storage.

Urban stormwater disposal has involved a lot of thoughtless conversion of streams to concrete channels and piping of water courses. The realisation of the effects of urbanisation on streams has been a recent event. The ideal of land development being hydrologically neutral is now gaining ground, but hard to apply in already developed catchments where infill development seems to inevitably involve more impermeable surfaces. As well on land with marginal slope stability enhancing local infiltration as a palliative can lead to slope failures. Still mid-catchment ponds to retain flood peaks and other like practices are becoming steadily more common. Stream restoration is a great achievement of modern Christchurch.


Fish release underwent a great surge from the late 1860s. The most successful releases were rainbow and brown trout, Chinook salmon and brook char. All in all there are 22 introduced species surviving, some displacing native fish in their habitats or acting as new predators. Rotorua Maori opposed the release of trout fearing an impact on their traditional fishery. Kakahi – fresh water mussels – are believed to have declined there because exotic fish which replaced native ones cannot provide the attachment that the mussel larvae need at an early parasitic stage in their growth. The Taupo fishery needed enhancement with release of some indigenous species of fish and shrimp as trout food, these apparently absent since the great eruption.

Many local hatcheries were established and persisted with release of salmonoid fishes in established fisheries until the late 20th century, in the mistaken belief that it increased the number of fish for catching. Some hatcheries persist to sustain trout in lakes where there are no breeding streams. An expensive attempt to establish a salmon fishery on the Whanganui persisted for many years. Acclimatisation societies also believed eels were a serious predator of trout and encouraged their destruction, even with bounties. They also persecuted shags for the same reason.

The influence of the angling lobby is reflected in the Resource Management Act. The only species to get a mention in the important sections 6 and 7 of the act are trout and salmon, where there is direction to have particular regard to protection of their habitat.

Grayling, once abundant, became progressively scarce and were extinct by the 1920s. Its loss is unexplained. It is the only fish extinction to date but others are threatened, particularly by habitat destruction.

Maori methods were adopted by all for catching whitebait. Stream diversions through woven traps were one method. Whitebait fishing by stream diversion was banned by regulations in 1894. West Coast whitebait were so abundant in the 19th century they were canned and also dried for export by a Chinese owned business.

Legislation about introduced fish was the first fisheries legislation in the country starting with the 1867 Propagation of Salmon and Trout Act – passed before any were actually established here. It established Crown precedence over the management of such fisheries, giving the authority to set fishing seasons. Later legislation established licences and fees for licences, proscribed some fishing methods and provided for bag and size limits all with the aim of preserving recreational fishing. The acclimatisation societies were at times agents for the selling of licences and for enforcement.

Eels only became a restricted catch for recreational fishers as late as 1994. A South Island quota system for eels was put in place in 2000 and in the North Island a quota introduced 2004. The Ngai Tahu settlement established Crown obligations over the management of this fishery in the South Island. Local controls have applied earlier. The Lake Forsyth eel fishery has been controlled since 1950 under Maori purpose legislation. It has been possible since 1900 under the Maori Councils Act 1900 for Maori District Councils to regulate eel weirs, nets and baskets "in such a manner that they shall not obstruct or impede navigation of rivers navigable by small steamers or boats…". The eel fishery has been commercially important since, but has been in decline since 1975.

Large female eels return once only to the sea to breed. Eel numbers are now much reduced. Regulation against taking the large eels essential for the species reproduction is very recent. Young eels coming from the sea are very accomplished at getting around natural and man made barriers. Other species are thwarted by as little as a culvert which is set above the exit water level. Eels cannot distinguish natural water flows from artificial ones. The Manukau sewage treatment plant effluent discharge is the largest river in Auckland. It attracts many elvers who become food for birds and fish rather than have a chance to become adult eels.

Fish farming is little developed in New Zealand. There have long been trout hatcheries but commercial fish farming is limited. There is a prawn farm at Wairakei using warm thermal water, a goldfish farm for pet fish and freshwater salmon rearing farms have been legal since 1972. The latter are all in the South Island and of smaller scale than sea rearing. Ocean ranching of salmon is no longer practised. Koura farming has been tried but has not yet reached a commercial scale.

Whitebait and eels are the only commercial freshwater fisheries. Farming and sale of trout is prohibited to protect wild stocks from disease and commercial poaching. Rights to whitebait stands on the productive rivers are private property, are inheritable and there is an active market for them. They are in effect a fishing right because the fishable length of whitebait rivers is usually quite short.

Pest fish introduced include koi carp, rudd and catfish. About 20 years ago an eccentric Englishman went round releasing exotic fish, including rudd, to the water supply lakes around Auckland. He was a coarse fishing exponent in his youth in Britain and his vision was to recreate it here. He looked quite dumbfounded at the suggestion it might not be a good thing. He was a century out of his time.

Fish were not the only aquatic introductions. There are many water plants now established here, some displacing native species and some causing nuisances.

Underground water

Underground water is an important water source in New Zealand, cheaply supplying much of our urban water. It is also important in places for irrigation, particularly where sources align with elite soils or premier climates. The underground sources are all of smaller scale than the surface catchments. Most had been little known until becoming more important in the second part of the 20th century.

It is interesting to note that underground water was unregulated until the Underground Water Act of 1953, much later than the other regulating acts.

The early development of drilled wells beyond bucket haulage was constrained by energy availability. Shallow wells could be pumped by suction pumps but risked failure as the water table fell seasonally or through use. In places like Heretaunga and Christchurch where the aquifers are artesian there was early use. The Christchurch aquifer is unusual on the Canterbury plains. The gravels elsewhere are commonly much less permeable and yield much less. Christchurch was a happy siting for the city’s water supply, even if the consequence was a swampy setting in the early years.

The Hutt Valley artesian aquifer seems to have been known early but not fully exploited until the 20th century. Perhaps the abundance of water in the Hutt River meant it was not initially valued. Elsewhere rural stock water was supplied by windmills from wells via down-well piston pumps, or if the water was close to the surface, pumps mounted at ground level with suction pipes down the well. Hayes Engineering works at Oturehua was one of the suppliers of windmills – it is now a preserved historic place. Pelton wheels were another of its products.

Few early underground water supplies had steam powered pumps. Seccombes well in Khyber Pass in Auckland drawing from a volcanic aquifer is an exception. It helped with early Auckland’s water supply. The pump engine was a directly connected reciprocating one mounted over the well. The expansion of railways created a need for water for the steam engines. Many of the water towers were supplied from wells by substantial wind powered pumps, built to a New Zealand Rail standard design.

Hard rock mining again had a demand for pumping for dewatering and the large scale pumping of ground water in early New Zealand was for this purpose. The old pump engine house at Waihi is well known. The surviving parts of the 1895 second big pump at Thames should be better known. It was operated by a collective to dewater several mines.

Fig 29. Mine pump at Thames

While jet pumps and airlifts have had some place in well pumping, modern use has been either with submersible pumps or down-hole centrifugal pumps driven by surface motors through vertical spindles. The technology of these is 20th century and the common application here lies in the second half of the century.

Recharging of aquifers by deliberate injection of water to sustain their yield is little practised. I am only aware of a scheme for this on the Heretaunga Plains drawing from the Ngaruroro River. Overseas it is a common application of reclaimed water. Our recent fondness for land disposal of effluent might be seen as a step in this direction but it is often with less thought to the quality of groundwater than avoiding the effects on surface water. The nitrogen, often little reduced in land application, is going to reappear somewhere sometime. The recent problems of algal blooms in the central North Island lakes have been contributed to by decades old nutrients in groundwater which are in slow transit to the lakes.

Underground paths have been used for storm water disposal as well. In the volcanic areas of Auckland for instance, piped stormwater systems are commonly dispensed with and ground soakage used. Such disposal here and elsewhere has sometimes been without thought or through accident. Local groundwater contamination from landfills and timber processing is quite common. The practice of using offal pits on farms still continues in some parts of the country. Thankfully the regulators are eliminating it in most areas and hopefully eventually all.

Irrigation schemes

Large scale irrigation schemes using other than pre-existing mining infrastructure developed first on the Canterbury Plains. The largest abstraction scheme, the Rangitata diversion, with a 67 km long race and an integral power scheme was a public work and opened in 1945. The Amuri Plains are served by two schemes fed from the Waiau and Hurinui Rivers. They opened in the 1980s. One replaced earlier watering races.

The use of the underground resources had to follow the general availability of rural electricity. Many small scale irrigation schemes are at a farm scale and use groundwater but some larger scale community underground water schemes exist.

Irrigation schemes worldwide often use capital in excess of that justified on a return basis. The reasons for this are complex but social pricing has been a common problem. It has occurred here too, mainly when public works have been involved. The last of these schemes developed by the Ministry of Works in the 1970s were engineering rather than farmer driven and many had poor take-up rates as the costs were seen as excessive. Many of the former state schemes are now privatised.

Allocation levels of surface and underground water sources to irrigation is high in many parts of the country. It is estimated that irrigation accounts for 77 percent of water allocation in New Zealand

With increasing intensification of agriculture the demand for new irrigation is strong. There is increasing interest in new storage schemes to allow high river flows to be harvested for later irrigation. Involvement of local and national government is often promoted. Greater efficiency of use of existing schemes is a potential source for new users in some areas but the present methods of allocation do little to encourage this.

Other uses

Rural use of water in pastoral farming has long been important. Intensive use of land in grassland farming needs water to be made available to the animals rather than relying on their getting to waterways. Many parts of New Zealand have intense distributions of stock watering ponds. Other areas have farm reticulation schemes feeding water troughs. Ram pumps were an important technology for supplying these, as were windmills, but usually these are supplanted today by electrically pumped wells. Water races for stock and domestic use were built on the Canterbury Plains. South of the Waimakariri a scheme opened in 1877, fed from a Kowai River dam, which failed in 1902. From 1890 the scheme was fed from the Waimakariri. A like scheme north of the river used a dam on the Eyre River and later a Waimakariri River intake.

Milking machines were available before there was wide distribution of electricity in rural areas. One hydraulic solution to providing the vacuum these require to operate was the Hutchinson vacuum pump – a sort of ram in reverse – installed in a stream with twin pipes which alternated in developing a flow of water and using the momentum of the water column as a vacuum suction. They were once common in Taranaki. Local dairy factories were once common too. They needed water flows for cooling. The past siting of the small factories in the stream valleys around Mount Taranaki is graphic testament to this need.

Nor are reticulated water supplies limited to towns. The dairy farming areas of the countryside often have rural water supply schemes as the intensity of land use can justify their capital. The earliest is claimed as the Hauraki Plains scheme commissioned in 1927, supplying an area where the groundwater was poor. Dairy shed wastes from early dairy farms were usually disposed of to streams, with severe faecal and other pollution resulting. By the late 20th century pond treatment and land irrigation had become the norm, with some help to streams but overland flow from fields to streams unprotected by bank edge reserves, continues to pollute.

The lakes and calmer rivers have long been used for recreational boating. Recreational use of the wilder rivers is also very important today but this has arisen largely in the past 20 years. River rafting and kayaking, jet boating and even rubber ring rafting through caves are all important parts of our recreation scene and they are important tourist dollar earners. Alpine sports using snow have grown enormously in the past 70 years. Now snow making and grooming are regular features to enhance the use of this recreation resource. Ice skating and curling have long been popular on those higher artificial lakes and tarns in Otago and Canterbury which freeze regularly enough to be used and on ice rinks at alpine resorts. Visits to glaciers have long been tourist fare – with Fox and Franz Joseph heading the list. More recently ski planes have made others more accessible.

A relatively recent use of waterways is for surplus heat disposal on a large scale. The former Meremere coal fired plant disposed of waste heat to the Waikato. The Huntly plant still does so and indeed its summer output is limited to a quarter of its capacity by the temperature limit set for the river.

The thermal waters were developed for local residents and international tourist use. Rotorua, Taupo and Hanmer are the best known today for their thermal spas but there are many more. Hanmer first had a changing shed built by the local land owner in 1871 and by 1916 was greatly developed including a convalescent hospital for returned soldiers. The Tudor style bath building at Rotorua was opened in 1908 on the occasion of the visit of officers of the US Atlantic fleet then moored in Auckland. Te Aroha was once a well known spa and has left us with a charming heritage town. In the peak of enthusiasm for spas there was even a Government balneologist – a job to covet! (See Herbert 1921). It should still exist even if only to preserve the word. Spa waters were an early focus for water chemistry. Perhaps the first water analyses for New Zealand were performed in Stuttgart on thermal waters collected in the inland North Island in 1859 by Hochstetter (1863:298).

Fig 30. Hanmer Spa 1906

Use of geothermal heat for energy and power generation is mostly more recent. Rotorua has long used the heat for domestic and some industrial use but it had to be constrained after over-use affected the geothermal tourist attractions. The pioneering major industrial uses were for the Kawerau paper mill and in electricity generation at Wairakei, where some of the waste heat is now also used industrially. Arsenic from the geothermal water here raises the level in the Waikato River to near the allowable value for drinking water. There are now many other geothermal plants.

Water is used for transport of iron sand. That mined by dredging at Taharoa is from a dammed and enlarged Lake Taharoa and is moved to bulk carrier ships for export, using fresh water from the lake. The sand mined at Maioro is pumped to the Glenbrook steel mill with water from the Waikato River and discharged to the Manukau Harbour. This mixing was objected to by local Maori on spiritual grounds.

Environmentalism, ownership and allocation

For all this use of water, in its natural state it has also been iconic.

Now let my thoughts be like the Arrow, wherein was gold,

And purposeful like the Kawarau, but not so cold.

Dennis Glover, Holiday Piece.

A large part of our landscape painting takes lakes and rivers as its subject. It is only engineers that have pictures of dams on their walls. A recent review of poetry and its relationship to the New Zealand landscape finds places with water as a dominant theme (Brown 2005).

The controversy of raising Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau to enhance power generation is often pointed to as a defining moment of the modern environmental movement in New Zealand. After much protest and the matter becoming an election issue in 1972, it was stopped. A parallel consequence now often overlooked, was that the proposal for the control of Lake Wanaka was also proscribed.

Clyde Dam, rejected under planning law was empowered by special legislation (1982) with a political deal with the Social Credit party. The Government could not whip its small majority into place, with two of its members voting against the Bill but it was saved by an accommodation over irrigation use.

With the recent proposed Waitaki scheme – Project Aqua – we have suddenly discovered that the methods of allocation that the RMA condoned were not likely to be effective. It really didn’t require a major new water use to discover that. Allocation has never been very clear even in regions like Auckland with well resourced regulators.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers amendment to the Water and Soil Conservation Act in 1983 can be seen as a consequence of the Manapouri and Clyde controversies. It focused on the aesthetic and recreational aspects of rivers in their natural state. Under it and its successor, the Water Conservation Order provisions of the RMA, we now have eleven orders in force. They had a slow start with a major battle over the Motu River which was contested by those who advocated hydro generation there. The Rakaia and Ahuriri River applications were also keenly contested by high country runholders wanting more water for irrigation. Processing of them has been slowed again by Waitangi Tribunal Claims. On rivers such as the Rangitata, with high levels of allocation, valued fisheries and pressure for more abstraction, establishing new orders has proved time consuming and divisive.

Waitangi claims over the beds of rivers and lakes are with us too. There have been others over fisheries, geothermal resources and the energy potential of rivers. The resolution of the river and lake bed ownership claims to date has been by recognition of Maori ownership but the re-asserted subjection to the rule of law. The Rotorua lakes have long been in this state. Increased opportunities for influence by Iwi in plans and decision making are also a feature of the settlements.

We are better at deciding what is needed in streams for environmental flows and perhaps less good for the flows needed for cultural values. This is sometimes called high level allocation. What is used out of the streams (‘low level allocation’) is a different matter. "First in first served", prior allocation to preferred uses and allocation to levels without demonstrable need, all occur. There is little incentive to shift water from low added value uses to higher values. Rights held but under-used are fiercely defended because of their capitalisation in land values. If water is allocated but used inefficiently, one has to buy the farm to get better use of the water. Over-allocation of surface water occurs often. Indeed many areas seem to have a management philosophy of over-allocation and restriction when flows are low. We rarely allocate a use right of the same duration as the economic life of the facility using it. This creates an unnecessary risk and it discourages investment.

The same principle of undervaluing water applies in towns. Our domestic urban supplies are mostly unmetered. Why are we so averse to charging and to trading for the low level allocation?

Our tradition of largely having an abundance of water has lead many to think of all water as a right. While it may be free when it falls from the sky getting it to use at the right place and time requires often massive investment. Treating it as a common good leads to misuse and not the best community outcome. The return on investment of our water infrastructure is often dismal. It may be providing a consumer surplus in its use but how does one know? Some of the advocates of water as a right have had private use objectives or other social objectives they are pursuing.

Our future is likely to be an increasing need for constraint to meet all the objectives sought in the use of water. Engineering around constraint, moving water from water rich to water short areas is rarely an option. Water’s economic value is low in relation to the cost of transporting it. But when we never really discover its economic value how can we judge costs?

"Cap and trade" systems should work where there is competition for a resource. We know this will lessen misuse of water, redistribute underused allocations and broadly direct water to the greatest economic benefit. The few times it has been tried seem to be at the hard end – spot markets in times of scarcity – not the easiest application. Our tradition is regulation. It has not always served us well. We should not stick with it for no good reason.

What can we see as an overview

Water for energy has been a major theme – for hydroelectricity now but for more diverse uses in the past. Today it is just as important and as controversial as ever.

Some historical uses have been quite short term, such as most of the transport uses, energy applied to gold sluicing, sawmills and flourmills. Others have persisted – disposal of waste to water continues as a major use to this day, even if we are less gross about it.

Some water engineering needs have been as a consequence of other uses – water supply to urban growth created by gold wealth, flood protection after timber cutting and mining tailings disposal changed rivers in their capacity to flood.

Some uses have transformed into others – water races for mining into irrigation, small scale hydrogeneration and municipal supply, flour mill water sources to flax and paper mills and to small scale hydroelectricity.

Where the physical structures were not re-used some skills certainly were. Some engineering skills in one industry have been reapplied: mining into tunnelling for water diversion, waterpower for stamper batteries and sluicing into hydroelectric power engineering, damming for timber driving and gold sluicing into damming for water supply, irrigation and hydro power. Extractive industries often begat skills used for more sustainable purposes.

Our engineers are not narrowly based technically. Many of the engineered works covered here have been built by engineers with impressive technical breadth. Despite specialisation we are still fortunate to have some of these people today.

Water races provided the precedents for the sorts of network utility siting, access and operation law that we are now familiar with. Water was once the leader in utility network law – now it is the laggard. Abundance has left us poorly prepared for allocation. In the height of hydraulic mining, the law was arguably better established for allocation than that we have today. Privately owned water facilities or rights of use are part of our history even if rare now.

Some early use of water was very destructive. The moonscapes in the sluiced areas and the effects of tailings disposal stand out. Use of water to dispose of waste was an early feature of colonial New Zealand. Some of the damage done then has been recovered but with an ever-increasing population, the improved practices of today are still damaging. The sad state of the populations of too many of our water birds shows our impact on the aquatic environment.

Fishing and water use have long been in conflict. Settler use of waterways for navigation, mining waste disposal and timber driving destroyed some Maori fisheries. New species introduced may have done likewise. Modern hydropower use has also been destructive in some places, but beneficial in others where new lake fisheries have been created. Some irrigation water takes have been excessive and damaged fisheries. Today our disposal of nutrients to some formerly pristine lakes threatens the continuance of the fisheries in them.

While New Zealand seemingly has an abundance of water there is a long history of conflicts for use, for in-stream uses and for out of stream uses. These conflicts have often been elevated to a political level. Rarely have market mechanisms been allowed to operate. Regulation has been the norm. However for much of our history the legislation has been reaction to problems rather than setting a context. The pressure now on the use of water for sustainable uses like hydroelectricity and irrigation is higher than ever. The natural environment is more highly valued now than in our past. Constraint will be a theme for ever more in our water use. With a major water issue on the Waitaki not being adequately dealt with by the present legislation and requiring a new statute, perhaps we have not come as far as we might have either.

Our challenge for the future is the increasing contest for the use of the resource. In the past short term use has often resolved conflicts as resources became available from one use to another, or political dominance eliminated one use. Now uses are more likely to be more permanent, demand large proportions of the available resource and thus allocation issues are likely to become more intense and ongoing. We have some history of dealing with this but we have also had more opportunity to learn from that history than we have taken.


End Note

1. It should not be thought that every use of these names is properly translated as here. There are other possible meanings and for a particular instance the traditions associated with the name need to be checked. However they are applied so often that the translation here must apply in most places.

The author

Garry Law is the principal of Law Associates Ltd Consultants, www.lawas.co.nz, is a past President of the New Zealand Archaeological Association www.nzarchaeology.org and a director of the Environmental Defence Society, www.eds.org.nz.

Garry’s career has been as an engineer and manager, mostly in the water industry. Here he brings in an interest in history and archaeology to bear on the history of water use.


The places

Many of the places mentioned in this paper can be viewed in Google Earth using the kmz file to be found at this location: http://tinyurl.com/5swpua

Select bibliography

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Best, E. 1929 Fishing Methods and Devices of the Maori. Dominion Museum Bulletin No 12. Dominion Museum. Wellington.

Blair, A. K 1994 The Cobb : the History of the Cobb River Hydro-electric Power Scheme. Privately published, Twizel.

Britten, R. 2000 Lake Coleridge, The Power, the People, the Land. Hazard Press. Christchurch.

Brougham, A.E. and A.W Reed 1963 The Reed Book of Maori Proverbs. Reed Books, Auckland.

Brown, J. (Ed) 2005 The nature of things : poems from the New Zealand landscape. Craig Potton, Nelson.

Chandler, P.M. and R.C. Hall 1986 Let there be light: A history of Bullendale and the generation of electric power in Central Otago. Central Otago Electric Power Board, Alexandra.

Cooper, E.B. 1989 The remotest interior: a history of Taupo. Moana Press, Tauranga.

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Hearn, T.J. and R. P. Hargreaves 1985 The Speculators Dream. Gold Dredging in Southern New Zealand. Allied Press, Dunedin.

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Petchey, P. 2006 Gold and electricity. Archaeological survey of Bullendale, Otago. Department of Conservation, Wellington.

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Wilson, J. 1989 Christchurch: swamp to city : a short history of the Christchurch Drainage Board, 1875-1989. Christchurch Drainage Board, Christchurch.

Wilson, L.M. 1994 An iron essay: A short history of the beam engine and the Western Springs waterworks. Museum of Transport and Technology, Auckland.

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There is much information on Maori fisheries and their colonial disturbance in Waitangi Tribunal Reports. Some of these are available on-line at www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz


Illustration Credits



Kevin L. Jones 1994 Nga Tohuwhenua mai Te Rangi / Crown copyright.
4 Kevin L. Jones 1994 Nga Tohuwhenua mai Te Rangi / Crown copyright.
5  Bragge, James, Percy's Flour Mill, Lower Hutt [ca 1860s] Alexander Turnbull Library Reference number: 1/1-013373-F
7 Glenesk dam, Piha district, Auckland Between 1915 and 1916 Alexander Turnbull Library Reference number: APG-0658-1/2-G
8 Creator unknown :Photograph of logs being transported down river [ca 1922] Alexander Turnbull Library Reference number: 1/2-002113-F
11 Sluice at Switzers Claim Alexander Turnbull Library Reference number: 1/2-066768-F
12 Kevin L. Jones 1994 Nga Tohuwhenua mai Te Rangi / Dept of Conservation.
13 Flume for coal, Cascade Creek, Buller, West Coast region 1945 Reference number: 1/4-001342-F
15 Scene alongside the Ohinemuri River, near Paeroa, with a goldmining dredge Circa 1916 Alexander Turnbull Library Reference number: APG-0705-1/2-G
16 Gold mine Alexander Turnbull Library Reference number: 1/2-068118-F

Dredging a river for gold near Lowburn [ca 1900] Alexander Turnbull Library Reference number: 1/2-018331-F


Other Maruiwi Press publications

Recollections of a Voyage to South Australia and New Zealand Commenced in 1838, Recorded at Huntly in 1907 by William Porter. Editors Miranda Law and Garry Law 96pp - illustrated - soft covers - ISBN: 0-476-01579-0

See http://www.lawas.co.nz/maruiwi.htm to order.

Auckland, August 1908: A Stop on the Great White Fleet World Cruise. Garry Law. 2008. Maruiwi Press eBook. ISBN: 978-0-473-13645-1


See http://www.lawas.co.nz/maruiwi.htm to order.




ISBN 978-0-473-13754-0



Version: July 2010