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Waitaki River

‘Waitaki’ literally means ‘the waterway of tears’, symbolising the tears of Aoraki Mt Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand, as they flow along the Tasman River and spill in Lake Pukaki

The headwaters of the Waitaki River in the Southern Alps. Mt Cook (bottom right), Tasman glacier (bottom left) and Lake Pukaki (right background)

The headwaters of the Waitaki River in the Southern Alps. Aoraki Mt Cook (bottom right), Tasman glacier (bottom left) with the Tasman River flowing into Lake Pukaki (right background)

The Waitaki river is the major river of the Mackenzie Basin, a large intermontane basin running between the Southern Alps and the Waimate foothills that forms the headwaters of the Waitaki River catchment. Fed by three large glacial lakes, Tekapo, Ohau as well as Lake Pukaki, the Waitaki River flows through Lake Waitaki,  Lake Benmore and Lake Aviemore, the latter two contained by Benmore Dam and Aviemore Dam respectively. There several tributaries, notably the Ahuriri River and the Hakataramea River. It passes Kurow and Glenavy before completing its 110km journey and entering the Pacific Ocean between Timaru and Oamaru on the east coast.

Waitaki rRiver mouth

Waitaki River mouth

Water flow

The Waitaki River has New Zealand’s fourth largest flow with a mean flow (1927 -2000) at the Waitaki Dam of 359 cumecs. The river’s flow is normally low in winter, increasing in spring when the snow from the Southern Alps melts. Summer flows are dependent on rainfall, and generally decline during autumn as smaller streams in the catchment begin to freeze. The glacial lakes dampen flood peaks and modifies flood flows into the lower catchment. This natural storage, together with the control of lake levels by hydro-electricity development, regulates downstream flow. The median flow of the Waitaki River at Kurow is 356 cumecs

The headwaters flowing into the Waitaki begin with the Tasman River . Management of the Waitaki River has been separated into two Zones under the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS).
  1. The Upper Waitaki Zone 
  2. The Lower Waitaki South Coastal Canterbury Zone

More information

Research and reference material