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Saving the Opihi River

It was December 1984 when Mark Webb joined the then Acclimatisation Society as a field officer. It was a job he had high hopes for, believing he would be involved in fisheries management, law enforcement and representing the organisation in resource consent hearings.

Instead, for the first six months all he did was salvage tens of thousands of fish daily from the drying reaches of the Opihi River.

When the Opihi River ran dry in 1985, Mark and his colleagues at the Acclimatisation Society salvaged more than 55,000 trout and salmon

"I thought what sort of place is this? If this is what the job's going to be like, then I'm not going to be here very long," Mark said. “It was pretty disappointing.”

It wasn’t uncommon for the Opihi River to run dry. About one out of three years, Mark found himself out salvaging fish – although not to the same extent as the 1984 drought.

Not long after the 1984 drought, the Opihi River Water Management Plan was up for renewal and the Acclimatisation Society requested higher minimum flows for the river.

At the time, the minimum flow at Saleyards Bridge was 1.8 cumecs (1800 litres per second), and the society believed 3.2 cumecs was the minimum flow needed to sustain the Opihi River fishery.

They were told the best they could hope for was 2.2 cumecs.

The Opuha Dam Scheme

So in the 1990s when the Opuha Dam Scheme came along and the Opuha Dam Company approached the society with an offer of six cumecs of water a year, the group was surprised.

“We were amazed. It was just something we had never thought was possible.”

Maintaining the river's water quantity

For the past 20 years, the Acclimatisation Society, succeeded by Fish & Game, have worked alongside the Opuha Dam Company to ensure the Opihi River continues to flow.

Three years ago, at the height of the most recent drought, the river got very close to drying up once again.

The Opuha Environmental Flow Release Advisory Group (OEFRAG) made it their number one priority to maintain connectivity in the river.

That meant irrigators were on restrictions, and towards the end of that summer, could not take water at all, just so the flow of the Opihi River could be maintained.

“We didn’t have to salvage fish from the Opihi at all and the river continued to flow all summer. Sure it was very low, but we were able to keep that flow going and that's a huge thing.”

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