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Hurunui River

The Hurunui River is one of the most diverse rivers in Canterbury. It has two main branches, each with distinctive attributes originating east of the Main Divide* in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Some 150km long, the total catchment area (click to see interactive map) of the river is 2671 km2.

The source of the north branch of the Hurunui is predominantly Lake Sumner, a remote high country lake. The south branch originates in the Southern Alps at Harpers Pass, with hot springs nearby Some of the tributaries include the Jollie Brook, the Glenrae River and the Mandamus River.

* ‘Main Divide’ refers to the area of the Southern Alps that divides the water catchments of the eastern side of the island from those on the west coast. The Main Divide also forms the boundary between the Canterbury and West Coast Regions.

Hurunui River: autumn

Hurunui River: autumn

Once past the foothills, the Hurunui River flows out onto the Canterbury Plains and through the Culverden basin until it reaches the coast just a few kilometres south of Port Robinson. Like most of Canterbury’s braided rivers, because of its sporadic flow regime and high sediment load, it forms a ‘braided’ estuary/lagoon system as it enters the Pacific.

Hurunui River mouth

Hurunui River mouth

In 2007, the New Zealand Fish and Game Council and the New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association (now known as Whitewater NZ) lodged an application with the Ministry for the Environment for a Water Conservation Order to protect the Hurunui River. In 2009, the Special Tribunal considering the application recommended to the Minister that a conservation order be granted for the North Branch of the Hurunui River but not the South Branch. Whitewater NZ appealed this decision, wanting the order to include the South Branch.


Important Bird Areas on the Hurunui River: links to 7-page PDF file that includes maps, habitat types, and threats relevant to the larger Rakaia catchment. This document was extracted from Forest & Bird’s 177-page 20Mb file on all rivers, lakes, and coastal areas.

Hurunui Water Project

The Hurunui Water Project (HWP) applied to Environment Canterbury for resource consents to dam the river and to take water for irrigation. In 2009, they indicated they would delay the processing of its applications so that the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) could address the issue of water storage. Hundreds of protest marchers, kayakers and fishers travelled down the Avon River objecting to the scheme. Sam Mahon, a Canterbury based artist concerned about water pollution, made a bust of Environment Minister Nick Smith out of dairy-cow dung in order to publicise the campaign to stop the Hurunui River from being dammed for irrigation.

In 2010 HWP lodged a High Court appeal of Environment Canterbury’s decision to make the damming of the Hurunui River a non-complying activity in the Canterbury Natural Resources Regional Plan. They then created HWP Biodiversity, a new arm of the HWP, to research ways to reduce the impact of irrigation.

The central question is whether the economic development of farmland through irrigation should trump the environmental integrity of the river, both through abstraction of water for irrigation and nutrient runoff entering the river. 

In accordance with the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Act 2010, the  Canterbury Water Management Strategy sets as its first order priorities: environment, customary use, community supplies and stock water; with second order priorities as irrigation, renewable electricity generation, recreation and amenity. The Zone Committee (in this area, the Hurunui and Waiau River) recognizes that clean drinking water, land use, water quality and quantity, environmental flows and allocation for the rivers, biodiversity protection and enhancement, irrigation, hydropower development and water storage options, and the principles of kaitiakitanga are all (intimately) interrelated and must be considered as a whole rather than in isolation. 

In 2018 the project stalled. Information on their website may or may not be up to date.

Conservation activities

More information


Research and reference material