The Planning of the Water Race

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.

The Dixon Private Scheme

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.

Extracts From the Oxford and Cust Observer

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 Opening 16th November 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.

Scheme Development 1998 to 2000

In recent history there have been other initiatives to set up an irrigation scheme.

In the Mid 1970`s, as usual, following a severe drought, a group from the Oxford Federated farmers met with the Catchment Board and the Oxford District Council, to discuss irrigation. Barry Erickson, representing Federated Farmers remembers the importance placed on the Waimakariri River users, fisherman and pleasure craft, as opposed to farming. Two meetings were held but nothing further was achieved at this time.

In 1983, David Inkson and Gavin Inch were instrumental in planning for 12,000 hectares to be irrigated from an intake under the Gorge Bridge. This scheme was to cover the land between the Waimakariri and the Eyre Rivers and would have taken in all the land still not watered above the present scheme. Water Rights were applied for and Doug Hood Ltd (WIL’s eventual main contractor) actually submitted tentative plans. However, the Government of the time pulled out of centrally funded schemes before a start was made and nothing was achieved. Gavin Inch went on to become a driving force behind today’s scheme as a member of the later formed Waimakariri Irrigation Committee.

A common interesting feature of both of these earlier initiatives was that the existing water race system was never considered as part of the scheme. In fact, it would have been a liability with many additional culverts, etc. being required. What appears to be an obvious symbiotic relationship now was only an apparent option following the coming together of the Councils and the Catchment Board under the umbrella of the Waimakariri District Council.

Photo Gallery
Construction 98-99
The Ten Years From the Idea to Completion

In the summer of 1988-89 yet another drought struck the Waimakariri – Ashley Plains area. This drought was the first major dry spell since the advent of the Ashley River Management Plan and the North Canterbury Catchment Board controls. These controls had set abstraction limits from rivers and groundwater during dry spells. They were applied for the first time during the 1988/1989 drought and farmers found that they were, for the first time ever, prohibited from taking water from surface streams, such as the Ashley and Cust, and from ground wells in some areas, even though water was visibly available for the taking.

The First Meetings to Discuss Water Shortages

In 1988 the Rangiora and the Oxford County Councils met to discuss ideas as to what might be done to ameliorate the effects of severe drought. In early 1989, after the drought had broken, the late Mayor of the Rangiora District Council, Mr. Trevor Inch, called a public meeting to discuss issues raised by the drought. This meeting strongly endorsed the need for further investigation into the potential for the stock water race system to be upgraded to provide at least some irrigation capacity. A committee was elected from the floor to oversee this investigation.

The committee members were Trevor Inch (Chairman) Gavin Inch, Robert Spark, Roscoe Taggart, Craig McIntosh, Neil Price, Trevor Minchington, Duncan Lundy and Gareth James (Waimakariri District Council, Manager of Services). Following the death of Trevor Inch in 1995, Roscoe Taggart was elected Chairman of the Committee. Roscoe played a major role in the Resource Consent process, leading to Consent approval, in part, in 1996.

Publicity of the Council’s intention resulted in unsolicited responses from various professionals offering services to investigate the concept and to prepare a feasibility report. A joint venture entity, known as the Combined Canterbury Irrigation Consultants (CCIC), was established to investigate the feasibility of upgrading the stock water race system. An interesting feature of the contract was that if the report indicated that the scheme was not feasible, CCIC would not be paid.

The pre-feasibility study was completed in March 1990. It concluded that the concept of developing an irrigation scheme based on the Waimakariri-Ashley Water Race Scheme, had merit, and was practical and feasible.

In September 1990, the Irrigation Committee called a public meeting in Cust to consider the report and discuss the potential of a combined irrigation and stock water scheme, based on the conclusions of the pre-feasibility study. Over 250 people attended this meeting of which approx 98% agreed to proceed with the next stage, being a full feasibility study.

Rankine and Hill Limited and Irricon Irrigation Consultants were commissioned for the full Feasibility Study. They released their report in November 1991. It concluded that the potential benefits to be gained from an integrated approach involving both surface and groundwater resources were enormous.

Extract from 1993 Newsletter

Potential Area for Irrigation Distribution Races

Ashley and Cust River Supplementation

The Ashley River has a tendency to dry up in summer. This affects wildlife, recreational users, and river irrigators. By providing water from the Waimakariri when the Ashley is low, it will be possible to keep the Ashley flow above the existing minimum flow most of the time. This will vastly improve the situation for fish and wildlife, and river users.

Irrigators using Ashley water will have much greater security, as the likelihood of low flows caused by banning of abstractions will be greatly reduced. The Cust River also suffers from low flows in dry periods. It will be possible to add water to the Cust to ensure that it continues to flow above the minimum flow level where irrigation from the river has to stop. This will be a major benefit to Cust Irrigators, and will also enhance the fish and wildlife environment.

During the 1993-1995 period many meetings were held with local property owners and with special interest groups to discuss the report’s findings.

In May 1996 WAWMS, through the Waimakariri District Council, applied for a Resource Consent for irrigation and to allow the supplementation of the Ashley and Cust River flows.

The Ashley and the Waimakariri rivers are the most heavily used rivers in Canterbury. There were large advantages to be gained with the enhancement of the Ashley and the Cust for recreation, fishing and in the recharging of the Eyre and Ashley aquifers.

However, these benefits have not been gained because the Resource Consent application was not approved. The main reason why this consent was not granted was stated to be because of expected turbidity differences between the Waimakariri River and Ashley river waters ( in spite of plans to pass the water through wet lands and a major silt trap). A further concern was the unknown effect that Waimakariri water might have on attracting Waimakariri River salmon into the Ashley River (false homing).

During a major drought in 1998, during which several rivers ran dry, letters were written to the Editor of “The Press ” in Christchurch concerning the numbers of fish dying because of a lack of water in local rivers. It was written that these fish would not have perished if recreational fishers and other interest groups had not objected to the enhancement plans for the same rivers during the Resource Consent process.

Trevor Inch a Key Driver Behind the Scheme

Just as Marmaduke Dixon had provided the political persuasion necessary to build the stock water race system a century earlier, Trevor Inch was the driving force that championed the concept of of what has become the present scheme. Because of the universal respect he commanded and because of his ability to bring others around to his way of thinking, this irrigation project moved beyond the “couple of meetings” stage allowing others to take over after his death and take the concept to a satisfactory conclusion.

Like Marmaduke Dixon a hundred years ago, Trevor Inch never got to see the scheme, having died, as mentioned previously, in 1995. Some of his words that he said that he will be remembered for were…

“The future of the Waimakariri Ashley plains area and the Waimakariri community is bound up with the Waimakariri Ashley Water Management Scheme. If the scheme goes ahead, the Waimakariri-Ashley plains will become the garden of Christchurch. If the scheme does not go ahead, the plains area will become the bedroom of Christchurch”.

Shortly before he died, Trevor made it very clear to his successor as Mayor of the Waimakariri District, Janice Skurr, how important he believed the scheme would be to the district. At the hand-over of the above Committee to Waimakariri Irrigation Ltd (on the 20th April 1998), Janice described Trevor Inch’s special request to her that she complete the irrigation scheme. In spite of vigorous debate by Council during which the future of Council support was in serious jeopardy, Mrs. Skurr continued to champion the cause and support his vision.

The support of the Council, both financially and morally, and of all the existing water race users (approximately 1100), provided the vehicle for the irrigation scheme to eventuate. It is for this reason that a plaque has been erected near the intake at Browns rock to record the gratitude of all race users, irrigation and stock water, for the Waimakariri District Councillors and Council staff and all stock water rate payers. Without their cooperation the Waimakariri Irrigation scheme would not have come to fruition.

Waimakariri Irrigation Limited

An Irrigation Committee was established to initiate scheme planning. Having successfully obtained a Resource Consent for irrigation (but having been turned down on river supplementation to all but the Eyre), it now needed to raise the required funding. It was decided to form a co-operative company would issue a prospectus and raise the funds and, in short, replace the Irrigation Committee. The company was registered as Waimakariri Irrigation Ltd (WIL) on 1 April 1998 and as a cooperative company on 26th June 1998. This was a reversion to the original title because the enhancement of the Ashley and the Cust rivers, as envisioned in the original Waimakariri – Ashley Water Management Scheme title, was no longer an option.

Coopers and Lybrand and the Waimakariri District Council following a keen response from the advertised vacancies, selected five Directors. They were Donald Young (Chairman), Robert Spark and Roscoe Taggart (both from the previous Committee), Gerald Clemens and Richard Allison. The Council appointed two directors, Messrs Trevor Minchington (the Council’s Drainage Asset Manager) and Leicester Steven. Leicester retired as a Director in 1999. Gareth James was appointed to take his place.

Gareth, as the Council’s former Services Manager, had been a strong supporter of the scheme from the very first meetings that were held and, with the other “originals”, Roscoe Taggart and Bob Spark, ensured a succession and consistency that has been invaluable in the maintaining the scheme’s direction and management.

The original committee and subsequent Board members all gave their time on a voluntary basis and this community commitment was matched by the goodwill and co-operation of all of the race users and shareholders.

The Waimakariri District Council, were also totally supportive of the scheme to the extent , bridged the funding costs of the Resource Consent application process by providing interest free loans totalling $679 000 and guaranteeing construction loans for the first five years. This vital seed capital was repaid in full by WIL in 1999 at the opening of the scheme. In return for this short-term loan, the district has an excellent, low cost , automated water race system that is already bringing very significant long term financial and employment benefits to the district. It represents a very good example as to how the co-operative spirit of a district can benefit not only those on the land but also, through the flow-on affects, the rest of the community. These benefits are often under-estimated. The Rangitata Diversion Race was constructed during the 1930`s depression and 63 years later the social and economic benefits are still growing. In 1996, it was calculated that the additional annual income directly attributable to the Rangitata scheme, was $138 million to the Ashburton district, a significant $5738 per head of population. This economic activity ensured that the Ashburton district had the lowest level of unemployment nationally at that time.

The scheme was funded by four fixed rate loans totalling $3.3 million, for terms of up to ten years.. Issuing 11,000 shares to 250 shareholders at $364 each raised an additional $4,004,000. Another 3,000 shares have since been issued at $400 each. Waimakariri Irrigation limited and yet another share issue of 4,000 shares at $510 was successfully completed in January 2002. The timing of the original borrowing was fortunate in that large interest savings were achieved against the rates proposed at the time of the prospectus six months previously.

David Attewell (Attewell Irrigation Consultants) had been contracted by the Irrigation Committee during the Consent process to work with Peter Callander from environmental and resource engineers Pattle Delamore Partners. Attewell had a reputation from farmers in the Maniototo and the Opuha Dam scheme as an irrigation consultant with a practical, common sense approach. Strong references and existing knowledge of the Waimakariri-Ashley water races led to his appointment as Project Manager. He steered the development bringing the $7.3 million scheme in on time , under budget and with improvements in addition to the scheme as detailed in the prospectus.

Because of the lack of detailed information regarding geology of the proposed alignment of the main race between the Waimakariri and Ashley rivers, and because of the need for the intake to be designed to operate in and withstand the rigours of a Waimakariri River in full flood, it was decided to seek proposals on a “Design and Build” (Turn Key) basis for principal contract involving the intake and the main race from four qualified construction companies. Doug Hood Limited of Ashburton were the successful Tenderers for the main contract. Construction began in October 1998 and was effectively completed within twelve months in time for a formal opening ceremony at the intake on the 30th October 1999.

The biggest engineering challenge encountered was the poor nature of the gravels along the terrace immediately downstream from the intake. The intention had been to widen and deepen the existing water race along this seven kilometre section of the race as it wound its way to the top of the terrace. However, soon after starting construction it became obvious that the gravels could not support a race designed to carry 10.5 cumecs. As a consequence, a major buttress had to be constructed along the side of the terrace and a wholly new race built within it. The design of this feature required that it be able to withstand a Richter Force 8 earthquake.

My thanks to

Bernard Kingsbury
Cust Museum

Gavin Inch
Of the Oxford Museum

Writer: Richard Allison