'Tragic event': Iwi blames irrigation for hundreds of eel deaths

11:17 am on 24 February 2021

Iwi and the regional council in Hawke's Bay are disputing why streams in the region are drying up this summer.

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Local kura have seen hundreds of eels dying in the mud. Photo: RNZ

The council first told RNZ it was a a natural occurrence, but said there was more to it after being pushed.

In Bridge Pā, near Heretaunga (Hastings) the local kura found hundreds of eels dying in the deep, dried mud which was once their local streams - the Karewarewa and the Paritua.

Ngāti Kahungunu environment and natural resources director Ngaio Tiuka said the children tried to save them.

"Quite a few people were capturing the eels that are left in these little pools and digging into the mud, hundreds of them, and relocating them to other places or other waterways where they can survive," he said.

"It's a bit of a tragic event, of course they can't save them all and we've got images of quite a number of eels dying but the school was involved in trying to save those."

To the local iwi and hapū, that summarised the degradation of the waterways they once enjoyed.

Lack of water being blamed on irrigation by local iwi

Children swim in one of the streams in the days they were full of water. (file pic) Photo: Supplied

Tiuka explained the importance.

"The streams and all the waterways are integral to the identity of tangata whenua, of mana whenua and part and parcel of the their pepeha, their whakapapa, to the landscape."

The question is - why are the streams drying up? There have been arguments between the iwi and local government.

"We've had a disagreement over this and tangata whenua have for a number of years and through our whānau, through our hapū and through our taiwhenua the anecdote is it's not a natural occurrence. Perhaps it's becoming more common, but it's not a natural occurrence," Tiuka said.

"The disappointment is felt but you're just masking if you're saying it's a natural occurrence, it's basically over-abstraction, it's over allocated."

Down to nature?

When first asked about the reasons for the Karewarewa and Paritua streams drying up, the regional council's chief executive James Palmer said it was mainly down to nature.

"The irrigation is a part of the story, but more fundamentally due to its location and the geology around it, is prone to drying during a dry summer."

But later, RNZ received a model the council completed a few years ago and showed it to Palmer. The model found over 90 percent of water was lost in the Karewarewa near Bridge Pā because of pumping for irrigation.

Palmer's team went back and found groundwater abstraction was likely to be causing the streams to go dry in parts, he explained later.

"There is certainly some question over whether or not it would dry up in summer if there was absolutely no abstraction across the Heretaunga plains."

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Groundwater abstraction is likely to be causing the streams to go dry in parts, the regional council's CEO James Palmer says. Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

The spokesperson for advocacy group Choose Clean Water, Marnie Prickett, said authorities needed to take a hard look at their current policies.

"If the government and regional councils are serious about their goals and our national goal of having healthy, swimmable rivers, then addressing those water takes is a really important part of this and it won't just be a matter of sort of maintaining what's happening now, but in some parts of the country there will have to be a process by which we actually take water off people who are using it."

This year, hearings will be held for a big plan change - TANK - that will affect many of Hawke's Bay's rivers and its tributaries.

Alongside that, Ngāti Kahungunu recently announced it would go to court with South Island iwi Ngāi Tahu to share control of its freshwater with the Crown.

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