We used to have water from here to the hills. As young kids you make your own fun in the country. We’d get some sheet iron and make a canoe, paddle in the flood water with it.
But it just ruined everyone’s livelihoods. The Government recognised the economic impact on the region and paid for three quarters of the solution. Prime Minister Keith Hollyoake actually sat in the sandpit and talked to us kids, that was about 1956. We had 118 acres and only 57 acres that didn’t flood. The biggest problem was the land was unsaleable so we were stuck.
I’ve been here since 1948. I was born in Ngāruawāhia. I started farming in 1962. I wasn’t quite 15, left school and started milking the cows.
The river we see today is a highly modified river compared to its early history, and that’s all contributed to flooding issues. There was a big blowout in the tailrace of the Arapuni Dam and the fill raised the bed of the river. People used to drive cattle across the river at Rangiriri in the summer. Dams were constructed, with more flow diverted into the river.
In the late 50s we had three big floods. The 53, 56 and 58. The 58 flood closed the main trunk line and State Highway 1, for nearly 10 days if I remember right.
There were discussions about dredging the river to get the silt out but fortunately we had a very good engineer who decided if we could stopbank the river that would get the silt out and restore it to its normal level. It was hugely successful.
The nature of the country is volcanic – ash and pumice – so the stopbanks could only be made so high. The scheme uses the swamps as emergency flood storage, so when the river gets to a certain level it spills over at Rangiriri. That’s only happened three times.
The scheme has been in for 60 odd years so some of the assets need renewing. It’s been one of the most successful flood protection schemes in New Zealand but the danger with that is people become complacent and people in government decide they want to spend money on other things, and there’s a whole new generation of people who don’t know what the flood scheme is about.
There are so few of us left who went through the floods and understand the impacts. We had a neighbour around: “Did my land ever flood?” Well, yes, all around your house. We had your herd up here because there was nowhere else for it to go!
We need to remember that the wider community benefits, too. The scheme protects thousands of hectares and the state highway and the railway line. And because the farms are productive they are providing income for the towns.
When no one understands it, we have that false sense of security that she’ll be right. One day we could get a huge flood that could overwhelm all the defences.
Malcolm and his siblings built a canoe to play in the flood.
"The biggest problem was the land was unsaleable so we were stuck."
Rangiriri in flood in the old days, when Malcolm was a young boy.