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The race we can't afford to lose - 2019 Men's Eight James Lassche

  • 17 Jun 2020

I was 15 when I first came to Lake Karapiro for the 2005 Maadi Cup. I remember driving in from Te Awamutu, coming around the Maungatautari corner and being blown away by the lake with all its lanes in place for racing, glassy waters, and the sheer number of crews dotted over its surface. I remember thinking how impressive the scene was; everything seemed larger than life. When I got out on the water myself the lake seemed endless. The furthest I went that year was to the weed wire just beyond the start, and I recall looking up the lake, curious to know how far it went. In the years to come while training on Lake Karapiro I quickly got a better gauge of just how long the lake is. It turns out you can row a very long way without having to stop – something that makes Lake Karapiro a uniquely special training location, and part of the reason New Zealand crews have been so successful over the years. Long before rowing came to the area known as Karapiro, the lake in its current form did not exist. Instead the area was part of a continuous flow of the Waikato River, a spiritual and sacred feature of the landscape for Māori, particularly the tribes of the Tainui waka (Waikato-Tainui, Ngaati Korokii-Kahukura and Ngāti Raukawa in the area local to Karapiro) and Ngāti Tūwharetoa nearer the river’s source in the central plateau.

In the early 1900s people began to investigate ways to turn the deep, narrow, turbulent stretch of water into a source of electricity for New Zealand’s burgeoning North Island population. The first dam, Arapuni, was built between 1924 and 1929 and was followed by seven others, including the Karapiro dam in 1947. With Karapiro in place, the domain at Horahora was flooded, creating the wide body of water that we now recognise as Lake Karapiro – a perfect spot for sport and leisure activities, and the training ground for generations of Kiwi rowing crews to come.

New Zealand’s population growth lead to industrialisation of the river, and the land along its banks has come under increasing demand. Forestry and dairying are recognisable features of local industry – the Waikato region is host to the highest number of dairy cows and dairy farms in the country – and while the growth in industry has considerable economic benefits for the region, it also has ramifications for the health of our river. Waste and runoff entering the Waikato waterway has lead to an increase in nitrates and contributed to a deterioration in water quality that manifests itself, among other ways, in the explosion of lake weed. Weed in the lake is a problem for all lake users: rowers, waka ama, kayakers, waterskiers, wakeboarders and powerboat drivers, to name a few. Increased weed is particularly problematic in the heat of summer when it has the potential to give way to toxic algal bloom, an issue of significant concern as it upsets the river’s ecosystem. Karapiro last experienced an algal bloom in 2015. Efforts to spray the lake to keep weed levels under control have been effective to a point, but do not represent a solution to the problem. Cleaning up our river is the best long-term solution.

As a member of the Olympic team to Rio in 2016, I experienced first-hand the situation for rowers who do not have clean water to train on. The stale smell of the lake there, the dead fish floating along the shoreline, and most concerning: the bacteria that you cannot see. To combat the potential dangers and to ensure we remained healthy for racing, we resorted to ziplock bagging our water bottles, gargling with antibacterial mouthwash after each row, and showering immediately after the row with antibacterial soap – all that just to sit on top of the water. This is the future for waterways that are not respected and properly cared for.

In New Zealand we are not yet at this stage, but a large number of our waterways are now deemed unsafe to swim in, and this could be the future of Karapiro and the Waikato River if we do not work at restoring and sustaining this crucial waterway. New Zealand is known around the world for its pristine natural environment. It is up to us to make sure it stays in shape to keep giving to future generations to come. The Waikato River Authority has been established to take on the challenge of caring for our river, and is leading various initiatives to improve the state of the waterway. Included in these are opportunities for lake users and locals to get involved, such as planting and fencing days, and there is also available for group-led projects that have a positive impact on the river. Part of the Waikato River Authority’s outreach to lake users is a new partnership with Rowing NZ. The two organisations are joining forces to raise awareness of water quality issues and of just how important it is that all those who benefit from the river also take care of its waters.

Lake Karapiro and the Waikato River are the foundation of Kiwi rowing success, providing crews with a training environment that is second to none. Let’s keep it that way.