Save Manapouri marks 50 years

It has been 50 years since the Save Manapouri Campaign succeeded in preventing what  would have been a severe environmental impact on the Fiordland National Park. Laura Smith touched base with some of the key people involved in protecting Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau.

The Manapouri Power Station was called a "world-first" in that a hydro-electric power station was built from a lake system managed in its natural state. However, it was years of activism which ensured that that was the case.

One of the first people to become involved in the campaign was Prof Sir Alan Mark, who was working as an associate professor in the University of Otago biology department.

"It was 1959, I think, the government announced they were having discussions about the possibility of building an aluminium smelter in Southland."

Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau shoreline vegetation tolerances to flood duration and exposure, based...
Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau shoreline vegetation tolerances to flood duration and exposure, based on results of ecological studies and used to develop lake management guidelines. GRAPHIC: SUPPLIED

That involved harnessing the waters of Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, and included the manipulation of lake levels.

Lake Manapouri would be raised up to the level of Te Anau, about 27m.

"Te Anau could only be raised to the point where the township was in no way threatened."

In October 1969, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research contacted him.

"[They] asked if we would be prepared to undertake a lakeshore study at Manapouri to describe the vegetation of the shoreline subject to it being drowned."

Transporting a pipe section over Wilmot Pass to West Arm. PHOTO: SUE AND ALAN MARCHANT COLLECTION...
Transporting a pipe section over Wilmot Pass to West Arm. PHOTO: SUE AND ALAN MARCHANT COLLECTION/MERIDIAN

At risk if the water levels were raised were 26 vegetated islands, and Prof Mark said 19 of them would have been submerged.

"We completed the study of Manapouri and sent those to the [New Zealand] Electricity Department."

Those were sent to government scientists who were asked to vet the report. They did so, and subsequently endorsed it.

The information gleaned was that raising Manapouri’s water level would produce only 4.6% more electricity annually, which was not deemed critical for the smelter.

Debate soon warmed up, and the Save Manapouri Campaign was formed. A commission of inquiry was also undertaken at this time — its findings included there was a legal obligation the Crown raise the level of Lake Manapouri.

The original Guardians photographed in 1973 with NZ Electricity Department district manager...
The original Guardians photographed in 1973 with NZ Electricity Department district manager Hector Jones (left). Guardians were Ron McLean, Wilson Campbell, Alan Mark, Les Hutchins, John Moore and Jim McFarlane. In front is Fiordland National Park representative John Gardener. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

"The head of Ministry of Works, Charles Turner, made a statement that when the government was controlling the levels of Lake Manapouri, they would be improving on nature."

Prof Mark said they were "playing God".

Awareness of the impact it would have on Te Anau as well was growing, and by 1970 a petition was signed by about 260,000 people who opposed the water level rise — about 10% of the population of New Zealand at the time. The campaign was in full swing.

A study at Lake Te Anau was completed and showed, just as at Manapouri, the forest of the lakeshore could cope with no more than 50 days of having its roots submerged.

The campaign had gained traction and the issue was a major topic leading up to the 1972 election. Labour was voted in and in 1973, then prime minister Norman Kirk pledged not to raise the levels of the lakes.

Manapouri power station surroundings. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Manapouri power station surroundings. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY

Mr Kirk had visited the lakes in 1972.

The Guardians of Lakes Manapouri, Monowai, and Te Anau were created as an independent body to oversee their management and all six of the original guardians were key to the campaign.

Prof Mark said it was the determined voice of the public which prompted the success.

Dr John Moore, who was pivotal in organising elements of the campaign, said the last time they got together was for the 21st commemorations.

"We did have a get-together, and we haven’t met since then. Really, it’s just Alan and me left now in terms of the guardians."

A Te Anau lakeshore survey at the Lugar Burn in 1971 to determine levels of the various...
A Te Anau lakeshore survey at the Lugar Burn in 1971 to determine levels of the various vegetation zones above the current lake level, which were recorded daily. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

This weekend, an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the campaign will be held in Te Anau.

Dr Moore was driving from Nelson to attend the event.

It was not until May of 1970 he became involved — he attended a meeting in Te Anau where original guardians Les Hutchins, Wilson Campbell and Prof Mark spoke.

"This was the first indication to residents that Te Anau lake levels would also be manipulated, despite claims to the contrary in the relevant legislation."

He was living in Te Anau as a young doctor with his family — he intended to stay for one year, but left after eight.

It was key the guardians had no conflicts on interest, he said.

"We were regarded, I think, by the public as being incorruptible.

"We came up with a way to run the thing and it’s now easily the best and the longest success story in terms of an artificial control over a natural lake without spoiling the shoreline in the world. This is a new thing."

Prime Minister Jack Marshall (holding his hat) accompanied by political colleagues and officials,...
Prime Minister Jack Marshall (holding his hat) accompanied by political colleagues and officials, was met by a large number of local people concerned about lake levels rising when he visited Te Anau in July 1972. PHOTO: ODT FILES

In 1962, Te Anau resident Ray Willett worked in the underground power station feeding miners.

It was in 1969 he heard Forest & Bird president Roy Nelson talk at a meeting.

"He was going on about the biggest environmental campaign ever. I thought, the silly old bugger."

He thought they were campaigning against the hydro-electric scheme because they had not heard about the prospect of raising the lake.

"I was so wrong, and he was so right."

Painting banners and marches were then on his agenda.

"The most memorable moment was the night of the election when they broke into the TV programmes to announce National had conceded defeat."

The microphone had been passed to Sir Jack Marshall who was asked, "What went wrong?"

"He said, ‘Well, we underestimated Manapouri and those 260,000 signatures’."

Mr Willett would bring his protest materials to the event on Sunday in Te Anau, which would be held in the community centre.

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