To be leaders in Water Management providing Reliable, Economic and Sustainable Supply
The first attempts to bring water to the higher plains between Waimakariri and Oxford were by farmers who built a dam and water races in the upper Eyre River, above View Hill. While the benefits of bringing water to such a summer-dry area were dramatic, the limited water catchment of the Upper Eyre resulted in poor water reliability. There were also constant complaints about keeping the races clean and in 1892 the Roads Board took control. It was known as the Eyre Scheme and was replaced by pipes in the 1970`s. It is now known as the No 1 Piped Scheme. The No 2 Piped Scheme was formed in the 1980`s, drawing water from Coopers Creek. The problems encountered with the upper Eyre River scheme in the 1890’s inspired the idea of harnessing the silty waters of the Waimakariri River.
In early 1892 after discussions by the local Roads Boards concerning recent droughts and the need for an improved water scheme, elections were held to form the Waimakariri-Ashley Water Supply Board. The members of this first Board were Messrs John Dobson (Chairman), Arthur Templer (Secretary), Thomas Pashby, Edmund Wilder, John Smith and Edward Chapman. On June 8 1892, Board members went on a two-day inspection of potential water intakes. They visited Ashley Gorge and then moved across country to the Waimakariri River at Rockford, a potentially good site about 6.5 kms above the Gorge Bridge.
Most were immediately convinced that Rockford was the ideal place for an intake, even though it required the construction of a long tunnel. During the journey they were met by Marmaduke Dixon (and his son, Marmaduke John) who promoted the merits of what they were convinced would be a better and cheaper intake at Browns Rock, on the north bank of the Waimakariri river about 3.3 kms below the Gorge Bridge.
Marmaduke had, at this stage, been farming at Eyrewell for 40 years and had only the year before put in his own substantial water scheme. This scheme is best described in a letter he wrote at the time for the English Mail
“I am now going on with a small scheme on my own property, quite independent of anyone else. It covers about 4,000 acres. This is now well in hand and about a fortnight will see the water on the land. We have been at it for about 4 or 5 weeks. We have shifted about 6,000 yards of slough (outer covering/overburden) and got about 300 acres of land ploughed, and hope by New Year (1892) to have well up to a 1000 acres under turnips and green crops. It will not cost me 100 pounds, being my own contractor and engineer.”
The effect on the land was astonishing, as a hundred farmers and other interested persons found when they attended a field day arranged by the Dixons shortly before Christmas in 1891.
The following covers the first meeting of the Waimakariri-Ashley Water Supply Board. Most of the meeting was spent discussing a letter from Mr. Dixon in which he offered to engineer and construct a race himself. This offer was preceded in the letter by an article describing his success at harnessing the Waimakariri River for the irrigation of his own property.
One common element in nearly every article promoting irrigation schemes to utilize Waimakariri River water was the energy and persuasion of Marmaduke Dixon in his quest to locate the intake at Browns Rock and not above the Gorge Bridge at Rockford.
The letter to the Editor (see following meeting coverage) questions the Dixon scheme as it jeopardized plans for an intake at Rockford. A Rockford intake would bring water for all of the dry land from well above the Gorge to Oxford, while a Browns Rock intake would only bring water to the east of Burnt Hill. Mr. Dixon replied strongly the following week, explaining his position, and including the results of his discussions with the Premier, Mr. Richard Seddon.
Mr. Dixon attracted a lot of negative sentiment and there appeared to be philosophical disagreements between himself and Mr. Dobson (the Chairman) over more than just water, stemming back to at least 1889. Both wanted a successful water scheme for the County but while such tensions in the community existed no scheme was being initiated.
There was intense interest and debate on the water scheme from the late 1880’s to beyond the opening in 1896. Mr. Dobson believed that this scheme was the most important project carried out in the colony up to that time. This was reflected in the Board obtaining its own Act of Parliament, which stemmed from the following letter from Mr. Dobson to the Premier.
The debate between Rockford and Browns Rock as the location for the intake covered two principal areas, economics and water reliability; the larger tunnel at Rockford was estimated to cost about 31,000 Pounds as opposed to a Browns Rock estimate of 10,000 Pounds. Doubts were expressed concerning water reliability at Browns Rock as the Waimakariri River had been known to meander away from this point.
The confidence engendered by heavier than usual summer rainfalls in the 1892 and 1893 season, led rate payers to prefer the cheaper Browns Rock scheme. The following document includes a list of petitioners and the area of land they owned.
The following record was made just thirteen days before the whole Board was voted out due to public frustration on 30th April 1894.
It is interesting to note that no mention is made of Browns Rock as a potential intake, while the new Board immediately borrowed 10,000 pounds and set to work there. By November 1896, the intake and 76 metres of tunnel were completed and the main race took water to the Eyre River crossing, 17 kms to the north.
The Waimakariri Ashley Water Supply Board that oversaw the construction is listed on the brass plaque at the Browns Rock Intake. They were Messrs J. O’ Halloran (chairman), J. D. Dickinson, S. Horrell, M. Dixon, J. McDowell, C. J. Webster (Engineer), J. W. Thomas (Contractor for tunnel), August 1896.
The official opening of the scheme was a gala day for the District. A special train for the occasion left Christchurch and gathered passengers en route via Rangiora and Oxford and then on to the Gorge Bridge, where, after arrival, they walked downriver to the intake at Browns Rock. The official party was not expected to make this trek, they having been ferried by wheeled transport (horse and cart) from Oxford. Following a grand Banquet in a marquee, there were many speeches and tributes to the efforts and commitment of everyone involved. A very similar opening function was also held at Browns Rock in October 1998, to mark the opening of the latest scheme.
Marmaduke Dixon did not live to see the official opening; he having died the previous year. The Prime Minister, Richard John Seddon, paid a warm tribute to his pioneering work. The opening by King Dick reflected the importance of the scheme to the country last century and following the rebirth of a greatly expanded scheme, it is hoped that it will again recapture its place of importance in the community.
View article from “The Oxford Observer” Saturday November 21, 1896
The following photo was probably taken on Opening Day.
The Chairman, Mr. O`Halloran is standing on the left and the Premier, Richard John Seddon, is standing beside him.
Richard Seddon stands 2nd from left. The Chairman, O’Halloran, stands far left. 16th November, 1896.
It is interesting that John O`Halloran farmed at Glentui on the North side of the Ashley River. His interest in the scheme may have been based on his view of the benefits that Waimakariri water could bring to the Ashley River, just as the original concept envisaged for today’s irrigation scheme.
The following photo was taken 17 years after the opening and shows the replacement of the wooden over-race with a syphon under the Eyre River.
Construction of the syphon under the Eyre River at Wolffs Road. The builders were George Smith and Son of Oxford. May 1913.
The positioning of the intake for the original race (and, because of its existence there; the irrigation intake) at Browns Rock is, without doubt, due to the efforts of Marmaduke Dixon. His advocacy of the Browns Rock location may, in part, have been for personal reasons as he was concerned that Waimakariri River silt, if captured by the Rockford scheme, would have settled in the races long before it reached, and could be utilised, on his property. He strongly emphasised the benefits to be gained from this silt, which helped his lighter, stonier land, to improve the topsoil. Interestingly, today, this feature of the Waimakariri water is seen as something of a liability, with race-silting and stock health issues of concern to some farmers.
A farmers Field Day at Claxby in 1998 (still farmed by Marmaduke Dixon’s descendants, including 93 year old Marmaduke Spencer- Bower and his family) covered their modern border-dyked scheme using Waimakariri River water.
Their present neighbour, Peter Prattley, advised that while he had not been applying any lime in recent years, soil pH had actually been rising, indicating that the river water actually had a liming effect as well as building up the silt content of the soil. This finding would appear to be backed up by North Canterbury Catchment Board measurements of Waimakariri River water; pH was 7 to 7.6 at the Gorge Bridge and 7 to 8.6 at the Halkett Groyne (between 1974 and 1984).
The choice of Browns Rock for the intake was most fiercely criticized due to questions as to the potentially low reliability of water supply from that location. However, since the scheme was established in 1896 , it has proved to be very reliable, especially considering that it is reliant on a very active, aggrading, braided and meandering river. The fact that today’s scheme also utilizes an intake at Browns Rock will be frustrating for the farmers to the west of Burnt Hill who have again missed the opportunity to gain the benefits to be had from Waimakariri River water.
Prior to 1896, houses in the District were mainly built close to streams. Away from the rivers, only wethers, which could manage without water for several days, could be run. The farmers at an earlier Claxby Field Day at Christmas in 1891 could have been forgiven for perhaps thinking that they were going to be able to irrigate from this great new water scheme. The reality, however, was that it was only used for stock and domestic purposes (as required when the wells dried up) and for fire fighting. The first real initiatives to use Waimakariri River water for irrigation did not begin for another 100 years.
The main Waimakariri Ashley Water Supply Board office was established at Cust and is today still in its original condition, safely housing hundreds of water race maps, photographs and letters. Letters and correspondence indicate that there were many petitions and problems for the various Boards to deal with. Their ability to plan, build and manage a major race system, with only the horse as their main form of transport, must humble all concerned today. Computer-controlled race gates, adjusting automatically to river levels, and automatic shut-downs will be of great benefit to all race users under the new scheme, but it has to be acknowledged that the originators did very well indeed with much less sophisticated equipment.
Many people have maintained and managed the water races over the past 100 years and made it possible to contemplate an irrigation scheme today. Before World War II it took up to 30 men annually to clean the races. After the war, because labour was in short supply, machinery was used for the first time. Two people, in particular, have given extraordinary service over the years. Mr. Thomas Lock was Secretary to the Board from 1922 to 1964, and Mr. Frank Sheat was a Board member for 51 years, from 1919 to 1970; the last 35 years as Chairman.
Generally speaking, since 1896, the water race has been very reliable. However, a blow-out on the main race in October, 1991, was due to its having been constructed without adequate compaction. Continual leakage over many years, and the consequent flushing of fine material from the gravels severely weakened the original structure. Modern engineering and much more robust construction techniques, and the building of a major buttress for almost six kilometres along the terrace, were required during construction of the new scheme to meet a minimum Force 8 earthquake standard and other Resource Consent conditions.
An expanded history of the original scheme and of events that have occurred since its opening in 1896, entitled “A Vision Fulfilled” has been authored by Richard Allison and published by Waimakariri Irrigation Limited. Copies can be obtained by writing to the Company’s Secretary, Koller & Hassall Limited, P.O. Box 56, Rangiora, New Zealand.
A view of the water race from Brown’s Rock, looking downstream. The race can be seen making it’s way along the side of the terrace in the far distance. 21st November 1923.