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.

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