Are we good lake guardians?
The Queenstown Lakes region is defined by big, sparkling lakes that drain southward from the Southern Alps - part of a chain of lakes that I call ‘The Southern Great Lakes’, spanning from Lake Poteriteri in Southland to Lake Coleridge in Canterbury.
There’s a good chance these lakes and their mountainous catchments are why you’re living here. But what if the lakes were to become polluted or degraded?
Imagine what the lakes are worth to Queenstown and Wanaka - their scenic beauty, the clean drinking water that they provide, their recreational opportunities, their importance as spectacular settings for our towns and villages, etc.
I think we can call these lakes the jewels in the crown of New Zealand, and, as a lake scientist visiting from the USA recently said to me, ‘I’ve spent my entire career studying lakes around the world, and the Great Lakes of the Southern Alps are unmatched the world over.’
So we are blessed with being the caretakers - the kaitiaki - of these remarkable jewels. But are we good kaitiaki? One need only look at the urban development and agricultural intensification in the catchments of Lakes Wanaka and Wakatipu to understand that the pressures on our lakes have been rapidly building and will continue to grow if we don’t develop more environmentally sustainably in our region.
I have been working with the Wanaka Guardians for over six years to gain support for installing state-of-the-art lake monitoring buoys into Lakes Wakatipu, Wanaka and Hayes, but we haven’t made any headway with the councils and still don’t have these crucial tools to help us understand the changes that are going on in our lakes.
For over 20 years, Professor Carolyn Burns and I (from the University of Otago) have been studying the lakes.
The special, native algae in our lakes are early warning indicators of environmental change and we’ve found that they’ve largely been replaced by new algae that produce a slime called lake snot, which clogs water filters, sticks to boats and fishing lines and probably changes the way the lakes function ecologically.
We would like to find out if the new algae is an invader to the lakes and to New Zealand. Why has it suddenly taken over our lakes? How does it spread from lake to lake? Can anything be done to stop it? Incredibly, we struggle to gain funding to carry out the studies that could answer these questions.
Do our governments care enough about our lakes or are they too focused on problems elsewhere?
Or don’t they want the truth to be known - that we simply aren’t doing enough to understand and protect our remarkable and unique Southern Great Lakes?
❚ Dr Marc Schallenberg is a research fellow studying lakes and estuaries in the Department of Zoology, University of Otago.
Otago University research fellow Dr Marc Schallenberg.