Traditionally, a "Riverkeeper" is someone who cares from a river environment for the benefit of the community.

The river park includes a park Riverkeeper, or Caretaker, in perpetuity, to manage the native nursery, undertake native restoration, and maintain the park, while fostering a culture of stewardship. 

In the end, a park needs to be maintained, and a park Riverkeeper will ensure that the river park facility is maintained and improved for the community in the long-term, without depending on financial or volunteer support from the QLDC, DoC, the Luggate Community Association, or other agencies. 

Background to this Project, 1991-2014

When I came to live at the Red Bridge in 1991, there were three small cottages in various stages of disrepair, hidden away among mature pines. The properties had been seized under the Public Works Act in the mid-1980s for hydro development, and subsequently rented out to a string of tenants. The entire site resembled an overgrown dump, with rubbish scattered throughout, intermixed with briars, blackberry, periwinkle, and dying kanuka.

Throughout the 1990's, there was talk of further large dams on the Clutha, and it seemed that all the Clutha properties seized for hydro development had been abandoned in terms of financial upkeep. The original proprietor was the Works Property Trust, but no landlord ever visited me at the Red Bridge, and nothing changed in 1996 when Contact Energy inherited the Clutha portfolio from the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand (ECNZ).

From the outset, I believed that the Luggate dam would never be viable, and that it was up to me to improve the property. During the early years I fully renovated the cottage, inside and out, replacing almost every fixture from door handles to taps. By the early 2000's, I had also felled and removed the large pines on the north side of the property. I removed briars and planted out flax, kanuka, and cordylines. As the native cover increased, so too did the numbers of Fantails, and soon Bellbirds arrived and nested annually.

In 2003, I initiated the Clutha Mata-Au River Parkway project, envisioning a river-length parkway and trail along the river corridor from Lake Wanaka to the Pacific. It was at this time I realised that the three Red Bridge properties, ecologically restored, could be included in this vision, although I was not sure how this could be achieved.

Trail development became the focus of the CMRP project, and a number of community groups began spearheading new trails. But in April 2009, Contact Energy resurrected plans for further large dams, proposing four options; Tuapeka, Beaumont, Queensbery, and Luggate.

I helped coordinate a meeting of river advocates at Alexandra. This group became the Clutha River Forum, an alliance of river conservation groups and individuals opposed to further large dams on the Clutha Mata-Au River. The Forum rejected the four options proposed by Contact Energy, and proposed a fifth option – no more dams. In May, 2012, Contact Energy finally abandoned all plans for further large dams on the Clutha Mata-Au River.

In August of 2012, I emailed Paul Hellebrekers, then the Area Manager for DoC: "You are probably aware that Poplar Cottage near the Luggate Red Bridge has been demolished and removed. It is my understanding that Contact Energy intends to offer this section to the original owners, after which it may be placed on the market. The area adjoins the existing native planting site at the Red Bridge, and is low-lying and very flood prone. In 1999, the water came up as far as the porch of the old house, so it is a poor site for building. However, subject to becoming available, it would make an ideal riverside reserve. The riverbank is sunny in the winter and pleasantly shady in the summer, beside a swimming area suitable for families (there is a pool behind the island with very slow water). The section could be partially grassed, providing easy access to the Marginal Strip, and native restoration could be undertaken over time to further improve the area.” 

Paul replied: "Attached is a plan showing the land status around the red bridge. One of my staff checked the site last week and is comfortable with the wilding pine work done to date. Agree the area would make a nice local reserve if developed.” 

Contact Energy had announced that its Clutha land portfolio would be sold, but no time-frame was given, so although I could see an opportunity to create a riverside reserve at the Red Bridge comprising the surplus properties, it was not possible to raise project funds. However, I continued consulting stakeholders and began drawing up plans.

The concept plan (April 2014) encompasses the entire Red Bridge area, with the river and highway as natural boundaries above and below, and adjoining restoration sites on either side. The Shortcut Road restoration site is a Forest and Bird project, which I assist with, and the bridge restoration site was initiated by myself when LTNZ removed some poplars. There, I have removed most of the blackberry and I try to keep the periwinkle from re-invading, but that area, which Contact has donated to the QLDC, is heavily infested and requires a long-term restoration plan.

The Red Bridge over the Clutha Matau is a remarkable feature. Travellers coming to Wanaka often stop and walk along the riverbank admiring the river, taking photos. However, the riverbank vegetation is nothing to be proud of. This entire area, at the NE entrance to Wanaka, could be a wonderful asset to the community if the Red Bridge River Park Trust achieves its vision.

Our Trustees are all professionals with specific roles that support the keystones of the project. The Trust is structured to be as self-sustaining as possible because we need long-term surety in order to achieve our vision over the coming decades. We do not wish to rely solely on outside funding, plants grown elsewhere, and volunteer labour.

Contact have sold two of the properties included in our original vision, which has reduced the size of the river park to about 5.2ha., including the Marginal Strip and the property that Contact is planning to donate.

However, we still have an option on the last available property at the Red Bridge, where I have been undertaking a native restoration project for over 20 years. This property would provide a source of native plants from the nursery, a source of rental funds from the cottage, and a source of labour from a Park Caretaker working part-time for the Trust.

I have no heirs and I wish to donate $133,000 and my services toward this cause as the first Park Caretaker, to ensure that the Red Bridge River Park vision is substantially achieved before I leave or die. The Trust's deed provides the Trustees with all the powers necessary to administer the Caretaker position, and to pursue the charitable purposes of the Trust in the future.

The Red Bridge River Park Charitable Trust has been heartened by the strong community support it has received. The Wanaka Community Board also fully endorses the Trust, recognising the many benefits of a conservation park focused on native restoration, education, and freshwater research. However, it has been difficult for the Trust to raise significant funds.

Some people say that although they really support the Trust and the project they do not wish to give money to Contact Energy via the Trust, because the perception is that Contact has already made a substantial profit by selling off numerous properties along the Clutha that it inherited in 1996. The typical comments are that Contact should support the local community by donating the land, or by selling it at a price the Trust can afford, or by matching the funds raised by the Trust dollar for dollar.

There is, apparently, a contest between conservation interests and corporate interests which is polarising, whereas the Trustees believe that the relationship between the Trust, Contact, and the community, should be positive and productive.

Contact Energy is requiring that we pay $300k. A meeting was held on 28 October 2014, and after several months of further negotiations a purchase agreement was reached, allowing the Trust to make a final settlement in 2020.

Lewis Verduyn-Cassels



Manaaki Tuna

Clutha River Guardian