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Taupo reunion celebrates 40 years of soil conservation work

A celebration of 40 years of central North Island soil conservation work is being held in Taupo this weekend, with people coming from as far afield as Papua New Guinea to attend.

The reunion marks 40 years since Environment Waikato’s predecessor, the Waikato Valley Authority, opened an office in Taupo in 1968 to begin new catchment control schemes.

Environment Waikato river and catchment services programme manager Bruce Peploe said the need for the schemes became apparent in the 1960s following widespread land clearance on the volcanic plateau.

“Large-scale land development by the Government’s departments of Lands and Survey and Maori Affairs often led to major soil erosion problems,” he said.

“Large amounts of pumice land were eroding in the gully systems and ending up in lakes and rivers.  At Reporoa, a combination of small, uneconomic farm units and erosion problems caused a number of farmers to leave their farms.  Farm land was being lost, debris and sediment was damaging water quality, reducing storage capacity in hydro dams along the Waikato River, and smothering trout habitat.”

In response to these issues, the Government earmarked several million dollars for catchment control schemes to help farmers protect their land.

It was the Waikato Valley Authority’s (WVA’s) job to work with farmers and implement the schemes, involving land retirement, river management works, fencing and planting streams, building erosion control structures and installing farm water supplies.

In 1968 the WVA sent 30-year-old employee Ian Cairns to Taupo to open a new office in a disused shed at the back of the Taupo County Council depot.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting us to be there very long, but the Lake Taupo scheme ended up being the biggest soil conservation scheme in New Zealand,” Ian said.

Taupo was a small town of about 5000 people when Ian first arrived.  The first supermarket (Woolworths) had only just opened, and most roads were dusty dirt tracks.

“In those days everyone living in Taupo came from somewhere else, including the farmers, but it was a very close-knit community,” he said.

Implementing the soil conservation schemes was a challenge for Ian and his staff, but farmer support was excellent. 

“There were a lot of problems farmers couldn’t solve on their own,” Ian said.

“It’s hard to understand today, but nearly every week someone would ring up and say we’ve got this great big gully cutting through our farm, can you do something about it.  It certainly kept us on our toes.”

Over the 1970s and 1980s catchment control schemes were launched for all land draining to Lake Taupo, the Paeroa Range and the Whirinaki, Waiehu and Torepatutahi rivers and streams.

Today these schemes are still going strong and the works have a replacement value of more than $50 million. 

Ten thousand hectares of grazing land has been retired, 7000 hectares have been re-vegetated, numerous bridges, stock crossings and erosion control structures have been built and more than 3000 kilometres of conservation fencing has been erected.

“The schemes have been highly effective in controlling erosion and have had a huge impact on protecting land and water quality of Lake Taupo and the upper sections of the Waikato River,” Mr Peploe said.

This weekend’s reunion is being held to celebrate the success of the schemes and to acknowledge the efforts of the people involved.

About 30 people will be attending, including Environment Waikato chairman Peter Buckley, Taupo District Council CEO Rob Williams and Lake Taupo Protection Trust chairman John Kneebone.

Festivities will kick off on November 21 with a Friday night gathering at the Great Lake Centre.  On Saturday there is a field trip to Reporoa, Waikite and Kinloch and a dinner in the evening.  On Sunday there is brunch and opportunities for fishing and/or golf.

Anyone interested in taking part is welcome to call Ian Cairns on (06) 844 3384 for more information.

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