Lagoon lament: Waituna woes continue

| February 19, 2024 | 5 Comments
Stakeholders working toward opening the lagoon to the sea, on January 30, 2024.

Work starts on releasing Waituna Lagoon to the sea. Photo taken on January 30, 2024.

Bureaucracy and inaction nearly cost Southland and the country an internationally acclaimed wetland, according to a local dairy farmer. Maarten Van Rossum, who has farmed in the Waituna Catchment for 14 years, says it shouldn’t have happened and it cannot be allowed to happen again.

Van Rossum says the agencies responsible for Waituna Lagoon – Environment Southland, the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Iwi, were too slow to react as conditions in the lagoon deteriorated.

The water level in the shallow brackish lagoon had dropped over summer and algae had begun to dominate. The once clear lagoon was affected by toxic cyanobacteria (algae) and turned a murky green.

The community in Waituna, many of whom have lived and farmed alongside the lagoon for decades, had been calling for common sense in relation to the management of the lagoon for months, if not years. They felt they could not get any of the above organisations to listen or even consider their view. Their years of experience with the lagoon appeared to mean nothing.

The lagoon, a large part of the 3500-hectare internationally recognised Awarua Wetland, was designated a Wetland of International Importance in 1976 under the Ramsar intergovernmental convention on Wetlands. Until 2022 a consent to open the lagoon to the sea was held by the Lake Waituna Control Association, made up of local landowners, fishermen and hunters.

The earliest known openings were around 1900 when Maori, farmers and fishermen opened it by hand. Since 1908 the community has opened it to the sea to allow fish passage, farms to drain and support wading bird habitat. It used to be opened when it reached a level of 2 metres but more recently 2.2m. It has been opened once a year on average, a process that allows the flushing of nutrients and sediment out to sea.

Everyone with an interest in the lagoon has arguably played a part in the degradation of it, either as an individual or as part of well-meaning organisations.

But it is farming that has always been blamed for the nutrients and sediment that can accumulate in the lagoon. Certainly, some have come from farms in modern times, but the degradation started decades ago when the government in the 1950s encouraged the development of the district. The straightening of feeder creeks by the Catchment Board only added to this flow of sediment, although it did lessen flooding.

Van Rossum said: “Farms in the catchment were good buying years ago. That was because they needed plenty of money spent on them, developing and draining. The farmers have debt; they can’t afford to walk away.

“There is room for improvement in the catchment, as there is with the organisations charged with protecting Waituna. Communication and understanding would be a good start.”

Mokotua farmer Ray McCrostie agreed, saying the farmers in the catchment were investing in making their farms more sustainable, improving wetland areas, and trying to prevent sediment and nutrient run-off well before the rest of the country.

“Waituna had always been the first cab off the rank. It is 10 years ahead of everywhere else.

“At the moment, the lagoon represents the complete inability of everyone connected to the environment to cohesively work together to protect it,” McCrostie said.

How did all this come about? The small rural community has, when appropriate, opened the lagoon to the sea since 1908, but in more recent times they have lost the right to do so. The community found themselves up against Environment Southland (ES), DOC and iwi during the consent process.

The Control Association felt it was being pressured by ES staff to relinquish the consent in 2019. Some land near the lagoon had been purchased by the Whakamana te Waituna Trust and the Southland Regional Council. That land was bought based on the lagoon level not being above 2.3m. However, they did not buy all land affected at that level.

The level of 2.3m is significant as the Lagoon Technical Group, a scientific group that consists of several coastal lagoon experts, has said that ruppia – a sea grass considered an indicator of lagoon health – could be harmed if the water level was maintained over 2.3m for more than 20 days.

Other recommendations included regular winter openings to protect the lagoon’s ecology. This appears to have been ignored or overlooked in recent times.

Initially, the Whakamana te Waituna Trust said it would seek a consent to open the lagoon, but the community was alarmed to hear the proposed new level would be 2.5m. The community was united in the view that this level was unworkable, and so the Control Association decided it would continue to represent farmer interests and it applied to renew its consent.

By the time the Control Association had submitted its renewal, a second application was filed by DOC and iwi. It was put on hold as the Control Association’s application took precedence as the existing consent holder.

To try to find common ground, representatives of the Control Association attempted to negotiate with DOC and iwi to obtain a consent everyone could live with. They felt they met a brick wall.

McCrostie, a sheep and beef farmer who has lived in the catchment for 54 years, said: “I find it amusing as an acknowledged Maori farming in the catchment, with a history of science-based solutions, my views, along with those of every other farmer, have been ignored.

“I have been subjected to bias and intimidation. To those who opposed the people of Waituna in their efforts to have input into their own destiny, I say you have forfeited the mana of your ancestors and destroyed your own credibility in the eyes of the catchment.”

The opening consent is not the only issue. It is also necessary to have permission from DOC to gain access and create an opening, which is usually done with a digger. The Control Association sought this from DOC on July 21, 2022. To date, DOC has not responded apart to acknowledge receipt of the letter.

This has not been a cheap process for the community. Many fishermen and hunters contributed towards the consent application costs. More than $90,000 was spent on this process and, eventually, the Control Association was forced to withdraw its application.

The continuous rights, held by the association, were lost as there was no option to transfer these rights. This meant no one could legally open the lagoon, and still can’t.

At this time, ES staff believed they could open the lagoon to alleviate flooding under emergency powers. But, Fish & Game and Forest & Bird had started legal action against ES and the Control Association, arguing that the decision of ES to allow the Control Association to continue to operate on the terms of its previous, now expired, consent while its new consent was being considered was unlawful under new legislation, which they believed saw the lagoon classified as a wetland and therefore, unable to be opened to the sea.

When the Control Association withdrew its application Fish & Game and Forest & Bird dropped their case.

By September 2023, the lagoon level was getting high – over 2.4m – and farmers in the lower catchment were nervous that a major flood event could occur; a deluge on top of an already brimming lake was feared. Some landowners had also lost access to their properties. Much of the land in the lower catchment is flat and low-lying. At 1.8m the lagoon is already spilling onto farmland.

The community looked to ES to open the lagoon under emergency powers. They were told the threshold for emergency powers was very high and that at 2.4m that threshold had not been met. Instead, the threshold would be 3m. The other thresholds of interest relate to any ecological threat to the health of the lagoon, such as algal blooms.

By November 5, 2023, the lagoon water level was dropping. Locals remained fearful of a flood event. However, they also recognised that, if rainfall was limited, a continuing drop in the water level would result in warm temperatures that would put the lagoon at risk of an algal bloom. They stressed to ES the need to open the lagoon before either of these eventualities occurred.

At that meeting, Van Rossum warned ES: “If this goes bad, this is on YOU.”

The community was also concerned for the endangered and migratory species, loss of access, damage to their property and infrastructure, a lack of outfall, and damage to the drainage network.

The community could not get any movement from ES, giving rise to the phrase: “The lake will do the talking.”

In a flood event, the feeder creeks cannot cope. Their sodden banks erode and fall in, resulting in more sediment and nutrients from farms being washed into the lagoon. It is this sediment and nutrients that scientists believe increases the chances of the lagoon flipping to an algal-dominated state.

As it turned out, a flood event did not eventuate. Instead, the lagoon level continued to drop through evapotranspiration and seepage through the pea-gravel bar to the sea. The bar is a great strainer and, while the water might have got away, the nutrient-laden sediment remained.

A tremendous amount of water seeped away, bringing the level down to 1.5m. So, after two and a half years of not being opened to the sea, in early November 2023, the lake did start to talk.

Locals noticed the lagoon did not look healthy. ES was alerted and water quality testing was increased.

What the community did not realise was that ES test results, which had been sent to Land, Air, Water Aotearoa on November 6, had already shown toxic algae was present.

Ironically at a community meeting on December 5, 2023, a farmer asked ES how the water quality in the lagoon was tracking. Of the seven ES representatives present, not one could answer.

On January 11, 2024, ES quietly issued a toxic alert for Waituna Lagoon. By that time, the lagoon had not been opened since September 2021.

The lagoon was clearly distressed. It was not its usual brackish colour; instead, it was a cloudy green. The community urged ES to use its emergency powers to open the lagoon but nothing much happened apart from more water testing.

It was terrible to watch unfold – seeing the lagoon an iridescent but murky shade of green and being unable to inspire the authorities to do anything.

It wasn’t until January 31, 2024, that the lagoon was opened to the sea.

At present it is still open. Fresh seawater is cooling and cleansing it. Hopefully, a lot of algae, sediment and nutrients have left the bed of the lagoon, but this opening will prove to be no more than a temporary band-aid.

When the sea decides, it will push up gravel and the lagoon will close. Essentially, the band-aid will be ripped off and all of the same issues will still exist.

The only consent application to open the lagoon is on hold. It will likely take years before an opening consent is granted. ES initially thought August 2025 was possible, but already it is behind its suggested timelines.

What are the chances of either a flood event on a full lagoon or algal domination on a shallow seeping lagoon before this date? And what are the chances that ES, DOC and local iwi can effectively manage either event?

Landowners in the catchment, fishermen and hunters now have no input into the management of the lagoon and, at a community meeting in early December 2023, ES said it would join with DOC and iwi and apply for the opening consent.

McCrostie said that “going forward, there is a new generation of farmers in the catchment; they believe in transparency and inclusiveness. They need to be encouraged and supported, not ignored and disregarded”.

He continues: “Finding a solution to the conundrum that is Waituna is going to require understanding and respect – there has been little of either in recent times.”

The suggestion that the community should have input into this consent fell on deaf ears. Instead, ES said it would represent the community. Since then, a letter was sent to ES on December 11, 2023, pointing out if it is to represent the community then the “bottom line” for the catchment is an opening level no higher than 2.3m.

No response has been received to this statement.


Jo Crack is the editor of Farmnews. She farms with her family adjacent to Waituna Lagoon, first sheep and now dairy and sheep.

Category: Environment, General

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Comments (5)

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  1. Ken Bradley QSM says:

    From 1957 to 1967 the Waituna Lagoon was my play ground, my brother and I spent many hundreds of hours exploring the western end. The lake was generally open to the sea. If it blocked it was opened as soon. As the level was high enough and tides right. My father was the first to organize a bulldozer to open it in the late 1950s. He helped locals open it at least twice with shovels. We use to catch whitetail in Moffit creek and search trout also. There are years of experience within the locals to this issue, so it is a great shame their experience is not used.

  2. Sean Daly says:

    Decide a set level for the lagoon all year round, build a canal to the Mataura at that level that allows eel and fish movement and do it once permanently. Openings to the sea require constant maintenance and worst of all decosion making.

  3. Lesley Murdoch says:

    My husband Peter Murdoch used to clear the Waituna lagoon many times when it got blocked and there was never this nonsense that is going on now. Get your act together and get the job done

  4. says:

    As with Seans suggestion an engineering solution such as an angled pipe combined with land use management controls such as sediment and nutrient management and ruminant concentration are a solution.
    With respect to debt you have to think about who is responcible for that debt and what controls are in place to monitor resource management consents that enable increases in intensity and measureable mitigation costs.

  5. Brent Gunther says:

    Growing up in the district I spent alot of time fishing at the lagoon and still do since the politics over the lake not being opened I’ve really noticed a massive increase in silt building up most of the channels have gone and it’s really difficult to find any reasonable deep water even some of the bays we use to access by boat are full of silt open it or loose it

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