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Key moments in Te Waihora's history

Formation of Te Waihora

Te Waihora was formed around 7,500 years ago when Kaitorete Spit joined with Te Pataka o Rākaihautū/Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora was a predominantly freshwater lake and lake levels would increase to around four metres above mean sea level – to the edges of where Lincoln and Tai Tapu are located today – before a natural opening would occur.

Studies by geologists suggest that there have been at least two periods when the area that forms Te Waihora today became much more brackish (salty), probably due to much more frequent openings as a result of the Waimakariri River changing its course to flow into the sea south of Banks Peninsula. The most recent of these occurrences was around 700-1000 years ago. When the Waimakariri outflow returned to Pegasus Bay, Kaitorete Spit again built up and the lake returned to a predominantly freshwater lake with infrequent openings to the sea.

Tangata whenua arrive and settle at Te Waihora

The first settlement of Te Wai Pounamu/the South Island began around the early 1300s, with the arrival of the Waitaha people near Nelson. From there they moved south to the area that is now Canterbury.

Kaitorete was an important main trail between mid-Canterbury, the west and the south, as well as a place of seasonal food gathering, tool gathering and fishing camps.

Some generations later, the Ngāti Māmoe people arrived from Te Ika a Māui/the North Island, settling among the Waitaha. A prominent man of this tribe was Tutekawa who, in establishing his home at Waikākahi/Birdlings Flat, pronounced Te Waihora as his own.

After Tutekawa killed two senior Ngāi Tahu women, Ngāi Tahu came from the north in pursuit. During these migrations, the Ngāi Tahu chief Te Ruahikihiki came to hear of the large lake in the south and its plentiful resources and mahinga kai. He proclaimed Orariki, Taumutu his home and the resources of the lake as his own and established his pā at Orariki. The settlement took advantage of marine fishing and shellfishing grounds and extensive areas of swamp and lagoon.

The Department of Conservation published research on early Canterbury archaeology in 1995, and the Te Waihora Joint Management Plan includes a section on Māori history.

At most of the early sites found on Kaitorete Spit, material other than stone has been blown away. However, scraps of the bones of seal, kiore, fish, and birds including moa, were discovered in the 1990s. Radiocarbon dates from two Kaitorete ovens suggest use of the area both during and after the moa-hunting period. In 2004, one of the country’s most significant textile finds was unearthed here. Tiny fragments of a Māori cloak carbon dated to around 500 years ago were found, making it two centuries older than any cloak ever found before in Aotearoa New Zealand.

First Europeans arrive

William Gilbert, an Englishman from an American whaler, is the first recorded European visitor to Taumutu, with more records of Europeans in this area from the 1840s onwards.

Te Waihora was named Lake Ellesmere by the early European settlers after the Earl of Ellesmere, a member of the Canterbury Association who promoted settlement in Canterbury but never visited Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Canterbury Purchase (Kemp’s Deed)

A hand drawn map of Canterbury and the West Coast, showing the extent of Kemp's DeedThe Canterbury Purchase, commonly known as Kemp’s Deed, was signed by a group of Ngāi Tahu chiefs on 12 June 1848. Henry Tacy Kemp, acting on behalf of the Crown, purchased 13,551,400 acres for £2,000. Kemp was directed to set aside for Māori 10% of the land area, considered sufficient for their present and future needs. In fact, only 6,359 acres, less than 0.05%, was set aside as Native Reserves for Ngāi Tahu.  

“Waihora was part of the area sold under the Kemp Purchase. Despite the importance of the lake to Ngāi Tahu as a food resource, despite the reservation of mahinga kai from the sale, despite acknowledgement from the Māori Land Court in 1868 that the tribe had always regarded this place as a valuable fishery and as the tribe’s most highly prized and valuable of all their possessions, despite strong protests by Ngāi Tahu over the years, no reserves of any kind were ever created over the lake to protect its use for Ngāi Tahu.” -The Waitangi Tribunal report (1991)

Source: CDP, Harry Evison Collection, Ngāi Tahu Archive.

Draining the lake margins

By the late 1840s, large farming runs surrounded Te Waihora. From the 1860s these large runs were subdivided, with the need to maintain lower lake levels and construct a network of drains in the areas around the lake to enable farming.

In 1889 a canal, the ‘Halswell Cut’ was constructed to connect the Huritini/Halswell River to the lake and drain the surrounding low-lying land for pastoral use.

The Lake Settlers’ Association was established in the 1930s to give a united voice on lake edge farming issues. The Association is made up of farmers whose properties are rated to fund the lake opening. Over the years, various schemes to prevent flooding and improve drainage have been developed by individuals and agencies.

Early commercial activity on the lake

In the early 1860s, William White established a sawmill at Little River. Timber was punted along Wairewa/Lake Forsyth and taken by tram to Birdlings Point. From there, shallow draft paddle steamers carried the timber across Te Waihora to Taumutu, the Selwyn River/Waikirikiri and Hart’s Creek/Waitatari, where a large timber yard was established. This led to early conflicts between farmers wanting lower lake levels and saw millers needing higher levels for transporting timber.

In 1864 commercial fishing for pātiki/flounder began. Up to 250 men and 20 boats fished from Taumutu.

National Water Conservation (Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere) Order

By the 1980s, the extensive land use changes in the catchment were clearly affecting the health of the lake and tributaries. A mechanism for recognising and protecting the values of the lake was needed.

In 1985 the Wildlife Service (now the Department of Conservation) applied for a National Water Conservation Order for Te Waihora, a legal mechanism to provide recognition of the outstanding amenity or intrinsic values of water bodies. The Order came into effect in 1990. In 2011 it was amended to recognise as outstanding features:

  • habitat for wildlife, indigenous wetland vegetation and fish; and
  • significance in accordance with tikanga Māori in respect of Ngāi Tahu history, mahinga kai and customary fisheries.

Ngāi Tahu Land Report

As noted, under the terms of the Canterbury Purchase, land should have been set aside to cater for the present and future needs of Māori. This did not happen.

In 1991, a report of the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 27) set out the grievances of Ngāi Tahu and the tribunal's findings on these. It covers the tribe's relationship with its land and rich and diverse resources, and the impacts and consequences of the Crown purchases. It is the story of Ngāi Tahu's search for redress over the past 150 years and how the Crown has responded, or failed to respond.

Ngāi Tahu settlement

The Ngāi Tahu Settlement agreement was signed in 1996, followed by the signing of the Deed of Settlement at Kaikōura in 1997, and the passage of the Ngāi Tahu Claim Settlement Act in 1998. The settlement returned the ownership of the bed of Te Waihora to Ngāi Tahu.

However, there remained a significant legacy issue of poor water quality and sediment deposition in Te Waihora resulting from historic land modification and use.

Te Waihora declared ‘technically dead’ by media

Te Waihora is teeming with life and highly productive. However, in a 2005 court case (Lynton Dairy Ltd v The Canterbury Regional Council, Environment Court - C108/2005) Judge Smith described the condition of the lake. Media incorrectly interpreted this as meaning the lake was ‘technically dead’. Sadly, this perception sometimes persists today.

Judge Smith said:

“Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) was a significant shock to the Court. The lake is eutrophic, green in colour and seems to be devoid of any riparian management. For example, stock seem to have free access to the water, the margins appear to be subject to chemical spraying regimes and lake levels manipulated for farming rather than the natural values. The lake water is in a serious ecological condition and is in urgent need of attention. Riparian management is required as an absolute minimum.”

Media interpreted the Judge’s statement: “… the heavily degraded lake was declared technically dead this year after Environment Court Judge Jeff Smith found it was in a serious ecological condition and virtually unable to sustain animal life.”

Jeanette Fitzsimons, the Green Party Co-leader, then used the phrase “Lake Ellesmere is biologically dead” in the Address in Reply Debate in Parliament, 15 November 2005.

Co-Governance and plan for restoring the mauri of the lake

In 2012, a Co-Governance agreement was signed, with the restoration of the mauri of Te Waihora at its heart.