Wa­ter war

A re­cent Wai­tangi Tri­bunal re­port vin­di­cates the man who has been fight­ing for years to save one of our most pol­luted lakes.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Karl du Fresne

A re­cent Wai­tangi Tri­bunal re­port vin­di­cates the man who has been fight­ing to save one of our most pol­luted lakes.

Phil Taueki is 57 but looks years older. His hair is sil­very white and his face is lined and worn. He’s stooped and his body seems to have shrunk. Years of al­most con­stant strife – with the po­lice, the courts, the Horowhenua Dis­trict Coun­cil and even his own iwi – have clearly taken their toll.

He looks as if the stuff­ing might have been knocked out of him. But Taueki re­mains staunch in his de­ter­mi­na­tion to rem­edy what he sees as his­tor­i­cal in­jus­tices and abuses heaped on his peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar the en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion of Lake Horowhenua, which the Wai­tangi Tri­bunal re­cently de­scribed as the most pre­cious taonga of the Muaupoko iwi to which Taueki be­longs.

The last time Lis­tener read­ers met Taueki, in 2014, he was in the Levin Dis­trict Court ac­cused of of­fences that in­cluded es­cap­ing from po­lice cus­tody, bur­glary, as­sault, wil­ful dam­age and pos­ses­sion of cannabis. He had just been re­leased from Manawatu Prison, where he lost sev­eral teeth in a fight with a fel­low pris­oner who wanted his nico­tine patches.

The for­mer ac­coun­tant has spent more nights in the Levin po­lice cells than he cares to re­mem­ber, on all man­ner of charges. Crim­i­nal ha­rass­ment, tres­pass­ing, breach of bail, threat­en­ing behaviour, re­ceiv­ing stolen prop­erty and pos­ses­sion of a metham­phetamine pipe are just a few of the oth­ers.

But he’s also chalked up some sig­nal vic­to­ries and, in the process, ex­posed what ap­pear to be se­ri­ous lapses and ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties by the po­lice, the coun­cil and the board that man­ages the lake. At least 30 charges against him have been with­drawn, dis­missed or quashed on ap­peal.

More than once, Taueki, rep­re­sent­ing him­self in court, has taken pros­e­cu­tion ev­i­dence apart through skilled cross-examination. And he has won sym­pa­thetic rul­ings from se­nior judges who recog­nised the va­lid­ity of his griev­ances.

But Taueki isn’t at log­ger­heads only with po­lice and the lo­cal coun­cil. He’s also em­broiled in con­flict with

In cer­tain con­di­tions, the wa­ter was toxic enough to be lethal if swal­lowed by a small child.

the dom­i­nant fac­tion in his own iwi, the re­sult of an in­tra-tribal feud stretch­ing back to the 19th cen­tury. That the Crown recog­nises the ri­val fac­tion as the tribe’s of­fi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tives, when Taueki chal­lenges their le­git­i­macy, only adds to his rage.

As Lis­tener read­ers will re­call from two pre- vi­ous ar­ti­cles, the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age done to the lake and the man­ner in which con­trol was wrested from its Maori own­ers last cen­tury lie at the heart of his griev­ances.

As a di­rect de­scen­dant of a Muaupoko chief who signed the Treaty of Wai­tangi, Taueki pur­ports to be the kaiti­aki, or guardian, of the lake. For most of the past few years, he has lived – or squat­ted, as his de­trac­tors pre­fer to put it – in a for­mer plant nurs­ery build­ing on the edge of the lake, on land he says be­longs to his whanau.

For­mer Horowhenua Mayor Bren­dan Duffy, who was voted out of of­fice last year af­ter four terms, has called Taueki a “team of one”, which is not strictly cor­rect. He does have sup­port in the Maori com­mu­nity, but some sym­pa­this­ers keep their dis­tance, view­ing his ag­gres­sive behaviour as un­help­ful. Even Anne Hunt, his part­ner, ad­mits she finds his an­gry out­bursts chal­leng­ing.

But Michael Feyen, who suc­ceeded Duffy as mayor, has a more sym­pa­thetic view of Taueki than his pre­de­ces­sor, de­scrib­ing him

as “a smart man, driven to de­spair”.


And Taueki can now claim vin­di­ca­tion by the Wai­tangi Tri­bunal, whose re­cent re­port on the Muaupoko iwi’s Treaty claims con­cludes that the Crown usurped the tribe’s prop­erty rights in re­spect of Lake Horowhenua, “and this usurpa­tion has been main­tained through to the present day”.

Taueki was one of 53 Muaupoko claimants, some of them now dead, whose griev­ances re­lat­ing to the lake and the loss of tribal land were heard by the tri­bunal in 2015. In its re­port, is­sued in June, the tri­bunal also found that the Crown had been com­plicit in the en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion of the lake, which is rated as one of the most pol­luted in New Zealand.

The re­port tells a story that jars against the an­o­dyne word­ing on the plaque at the en­trance to the Lake Horowhenua Do­main. This de­clares that the do­main was “de­vel­oped jointly by the Maori and Euro­pean peo­ple of the Horowhenua as a vis­i­ble sym­bol of the co-op­er­a­tion and brother­hood be­tween the races and is for the use and en­joy­ment of all”.

The truth is not so com­fort­ing. As the Lis­tener con­cluded in 2013: if there were a com­pe­ti­tion to find New Zealand’s most con­flict-prone body of wa­ter, Lake Horowhenua would be a run­away win­ner.

By com­mon con­sent, the 2.9sq km lake on the western out­skirts of Levin has al­ways be­longed to the Muaupoko iwi. But in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies there was pres­sure from Levin towns­folk for the Govern­ment to buy the lake and make it avail­able for recre­ation.

The Levin Cham­ber of Commerce also got in­volved, ag­i­tat­ing for the lake to be drained to free up land for farm­ing. The lo­cal MP warned Pre­mier Richard Sed­don that if he failed to do some­thing, “it will go hard with the Govern­ment can­di­date in Levin at the next elec­tion”.

There were par­al­lels here with a si­mul­ta­ne­ous strug­gle be­tween set­tlers and Maori over Lake Wairarapa – like Lake Horowhenua, a cher­ished food source for lo­cal iwi, but a nui­sance to farm­ers who wanted its an­nual cy­cle of flood­ing con­trolled.

As the Lis­tener re­ported in 2010, Lake Wairarapa’s Maori own­ers, ground down by years of costly lit­i­ga­tion, even­tu­ally gifted the lake to the Crown and in re­turn were given 12,000ha of use­less pumice land hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres away on the Cen­tral Plateau.

As in the Wairarapa, Sed­don played an ac­tive hand in Horowhenua. And as in the Wairarapa, it’s hard to avoid the con­clu­sion that while pre­sent­ing him­self as a friend of lo­cal Maori, he wanted an out­come that would keep Pakeha in­ter­ests happy.

In the 1920s, the lake level was low­ered by 1.2m to give lo­cal farm­ers ad­di­tional graz­ing land.

Sed­don was present at a cru­cial meet­ing in Levin at which the Muaupoko iwi sup­pos­edly agreed to cede con­trol of Lake Horowhenua while re­tain­ing own­er­ship. De­tails of ex­actly what was agreed or who at­tended are dis­puted, but the “agree­ment” re­sulted in a 1905 Act of Par­lia­ment that de­clared the lake a pub­lic recre­ation re­serve and placed man­age­ment and con­trol in the hands of a do­main board ap­pointed by the Govern­ment.

But the Act went fur­ther. On a mo­tion from Sed­don, an amend­ment was added stip­u­lat­ing that while the Maori own­ers

The de­vel­op­ment was in­tended not for Maori but for the ben­e­fit of Pakeha want­ing hol­i­day homes by the sea.

were guar­an­teed free and un­re­stricted use of the lake, this was not to in­ter­fere with “the full and free use of the lake for aquatic sports and plea­sures”.

The Muaupoko claimed the Act went far be­yond any­thing that was agreed at the meet­ing, and at least one con­tem­po­rary Pakeha par­lia­men­tar­ian thought the tribe had been shafted. John Rigg told the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil: “There was no con­sid­er­a­tion pro­vided for the great ad­van­tage given to the Euro­peans, and it prac­ti­cally meant that the na­tives of Muaupoko tribe were mak­ing a splen­did and gen­er­ous gift to the peo­ple of this colony.

“When the value of the prop­erty was con­sid­ered, it was re­ally sur­pris­ing that some­thing more had not been said in recog­ni­tion of the gen­eros­ity of the na­tives in this mat­ter.”

Over sub­se­quent decades, the lake was to be­come a pop­u­lar venue for sail­ing, row­ing, speed­boat races and trout fish­ing. The Muaupoko seem to have been rel­a­tively re­laxed about some of these ac­tiv­i­ties but were much less happy about trout, which were re­leased into the lake against their wishes, and speed­boats.

In 1956, the leg­is­la­tion was tweaked to state that use of the lake by the Maori own­ers was not to in­ter­fere with the rea­son­able rights of the pub­lic as de­ter­mined by the do­main board. As the Maori Land Court ob­served in 1982, the leg­is­la­tion was a con­tra­dic­tion in terms – “for how can per­sons be said to have free and un­re­stricted use at all times if their use is to be re­stricted by some other per­sons’ use?”


The tri­bunal’s painstak­ingly re­searched 750-page re­port is a chron­i­cle of of­fi­cial in­dif­fer­ence, verg­ing on con­tempt, to­wards Maori rights and in­ter­ests in the lake. It con­cludes that the Crown took an “un­usu­ally ac­tive” role in re­spect of both Lake Horowhenua and the Hokio Stream, which con­nects the lake with the sea, and was com­plicit in their en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.

The re­port doc­u­ments a con­tin­u­ing strug­gle be­tween the lake’s Maori own­ers on one

hand and Pakeha in­ter­ests on the other.

Al­most in­vari­ably, the Maori own­ers were out­ma­noeu­vred or out­gunned. No com­pen­sa­tion was paid for dam­age done or land ap­pro­pri­ated for the ben­e­fit of the town, and no rent was paid for the lake’s use (in con­trast to lakes Taupo, Waikare­moana and Ro­torua).

In the 1920s, the lake level was low­ered by 1.2m for the ben­e­fit of lo­cal farm­ers, who gained ad­di­tional graz­ing land, while Maori lost valu­able eel and mus­sel habi­tat. The iwi protested to the Govern­ment, say­ing, “This is a great calamity which has fallen on us.” Noth­ing was done.

Cru­cial meet­ings about the lake took place that the tribe knew noth­ing about and was not rep­re­sented at. Good­will ges­tures and com­pro­mises by the Muaupoko own­ers were taken ad­van­tage of but not re­cip­ro­cated, and some­times even opened the way for fur­ther depre­da­tions.

On sev­eral oc­ca­sions, min­is­ters of the Crown made what ap­pear to have been sin­cere at­tempts to re­solve is­sues in a way that was fair to the iwi. They were usu­ally de­feated by lo­cal re­sis­tance.

And all the while, de­spite grandiose plans to de­velop the lake as a “plea­sure re­sort”, its wa­ters were be­ing pol­luted by town sewage, stormwa­ter and runoff from sur­round­ing farms and mar­ket gar­dens. In 2012, Niwa f resh­wa­ter sci­en­tist Max Gibbs shocked Hori­zons Re­gional Coun­cil mem­bers by telling them that in cer­tain con­di­tions, the wa­ter was toxic enough to be lethal if swal­lowed by a small child.

Ac­cord­ing to Gibbs, the wa­ter qual­ity was very poor and de­clin­ing as a re­sult of in­creas­ing nutri­ent and sed­i­ment loads. Nu­tri­ents from 25 years of sewage dis­charge, which con­tin­ued un­til 1987, had ac­cu­mu­lated in the lake sed­i­ment and were a ma­jor cause of the lake be­com­ing hy­per­trophic (ex­ces­sively en­riched with nu­tri­ents).

The tri­bunal said that other New Zealand cities and towns de­vel­oped sewage treat­ment schemes in the early 20th cen­tury. By 1933, Levin was the only town of its size with­out one, but the coun­cil con­tin­ued to re­sist pres­sure to build one, partly be­cause of the cost. The re­port im­plies that the for­mer Levin Bor­ough Coun­cil didn’t bother build­ing a treat­ment plant be­cause the lake pro­vided a cheap and handy means of dis­posal.

When a plant was even­tu­ally in­stalled in the early 1950s, it was sited close to the lake’s edge and ef­flu­ent con­stantly flowed into the lake from sludge pits. In wet weather, when the sys­tem be­came over­loaded, raw sewage was dis­charged di­rectly into the lake – hence Taueki’s oft-re­peated claim that Levin used it as a toi­let. Ni­trates and phos­pho­rus in runoff from sur­round­ing farms and mar­ket gar­dens ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lem.

An­other fac­tor was the con­struc­tion of a weir where the Hokio Stream flows out of the lake, an in­ter­ven­tion which the tri­bunal said was ap­proved by the Crown “in the cer­tain knowl­edge” that it would harm aquatic life.

The pur­pose was to con­trol the level of the lake, but the weir blocked fish ac­cess to the sea and re­stricted the lake’s abil­ity to cleanse it­self by nat­u­ral flush­ing. One con­se­quence was a build-up of sludge and

In a story re­plete with bad faith and de­ceit, Muaupoko iwi lead­ers ap­pear to have been not en­tirely blame­less.

Paint­ings of Lake Horowhenua in (1) 1875, (2) about 1860 and (3) about 1909.



Lake Horowhenua


Phil Taueki at Lake Horowhenua show­ing the ef­fects of tak­ing a dip. Right, Taueki’s niece Makere Taueki and the skele­ton of a dead bird on the edge of the lake.


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