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Editorial letter, January 2013

Pristine now, but for how much longer? New Zealand rivers are increasingly threatened by development. Photo: Supplied

Wilderness first seriously looked at the threats the country’s wild rivers faced back in February 2008. The Helen Clark-led Labour Government had just made increasing energy production through renewable means a top priority. The country was to meet 90 per cent of its energy requirements through renewable electricity generation.

It sounded great on paper – more cleaner and greener energy and less dirty fossil fuel burning.

But, as with everything, there was – and still is – a downside. Renewable in this country tends to mean hydro and hydro, tends to destroy river habitats and with them a fantastic recreation resource. Unfortunately, the best rivers for hydro are also the most remote, the most wild and the most scenic.

I suppose one good thing about hydro schemes is that they don’t tend to pollute rivers to a point they are too dangerous to swim in. That’s not the case with irrigation and land intensification, which are growing threats to many lowland rivers in New Zealand. It’s got to the point where many of these rivers are considered too polluted to swim in.

With more land being converted to dairying and more water taken for irrigation, it sometimes feels like the country is blindly riding the dairy boom to what feels like its inevitable bust.

This month, we highlight five rivers that are in serious danger of forever losing their wildness and allure. They are polluted, their flows have been diverted and hydro dams are proposed. Once the state-owned power companies are partially sold off, it’s highly likely more pressure will be applied by shareholders for the companies to turn a profit and to keep increasing that profit year after year. More energy production – more dams – will be the answer and I fully expect to be writing about another five rivers in a few years’ time.

Of course, compromises have to be made – and have been made; not every river is fought for tooth and nail. For trampers and other river users, wild rivers are irreplaceable and this is where most who value the environment and New Zealand’s most beautiful landscapes rightly draw the line. The Mokihinui was saved and we can save rivers like the Waitaha, the South Hurunui and Matakitaki.

West Coast kayaker Keith Riley sums it up best in our feature ‘New Zealand’s most endangered rivers‘ when he says: “On a world scale, pristine, free-flowing rivers are a rarity and we have to preserve them and recognize they’re not a commodity.

“Very few people will ever kayak through Morgan Gorge [on the Waitaha River] and very few will ever see more than 0.5 per cent of our national parks, nor will they go to Antarctica. But we feel compelled to protect these places because they’re wild and untouched and we want to keep them that way.”