Time's up for water veteran

01:00, Jun 14 2013
Gordon Curnow
LAST DROP: Hydrologist Gordon Curnow is calling time on his retiring after 50 years in the same career.

Tasman hydrologist Gordon Curnow has taken his last rainfall reading.

As a school leaver he wandered down to the back of his family's Tapawera farm 50 years ago and asked a river works gang if they had a job.

Today his years of working in the district's rivers, measuring floods and groundwater levels and monitoring rainfall come to an end.

In 1963 young Gordon started his working life driving tractors planting thousands of willow stakes for the Nelson Catchment Board and placing rocks to protect the river banks from erosion. He was paid 40 pence an hour.

"I was 16 and I knew it wasn't going to make me wealthy," Mr Curnow said.

Then the region's bare-banked rivers took bites out of paddocks as they meandered across the farmed flood plains at will. There wasn't a willow in sight. It was the gang's jobs to bring the region's river's into line.


For seven years he and his workmates jousted with the rivers until Mr Curnow's father died and he returned to run the family farm until it was sold.

"I'd moved into Richmond with Mum when one day the catchment board engineer turned up and offered me a job as the foreman of a river gang."

It was a break in the workflow which saw Mr Curnow move into the region's hydrology team.

"The catchment board ran out of money to do river works so asked us to come into the office - I was doing rainfall data." Those years saw him help map the Waimea Plain's underground aquifers while rubbing shoulders with water resources scientist Michael Dicker.

Hydrological study, and the region's subsequent amalgamations, eventually saw Mr Curnow employed as Tasman District Council's hydrologist. It was 1992.

Together with the council's water scientist, Joseph Thomas, Mr Curnow mapped the district's main underground aquifers, tested pumped bores and measured water takes to gather data to understand how the district's water systems worked.

He said Tasman's understanding of its water resource today exceeded many of its council peers.

But the community's attitude towards water use and water pollution had to change.

"People are still looking to use as much water as they can for free. But we are getting to the point use has to be restricted.

"The major Moutere aquifer draws down a few metres over each summer, but takes until September to recharge. Aquifers are like a pot full of water - if you take too much it will be empty. This has already happened in places like California."

Hand-in-hand went the question of water quality.

"The community has to do its best to look after the water quality they have because it is at great risk of being degraded past the point of return," he said.

Community peer pressure was the best way to ensure the district's rivers' clear blue-green headwaters were not completely fouled by the time they reached Tasman Bay, he said.

On the Lee Valley Dam, Mr Curnow said it would be great to have it, but essentially the argument was about who would pay.

"They could get by without it, but water rights will be restricted and people may not have as much water as they would like."

His boss, environment and planning manager Dennis Bush-King, invited Mr Curnow into Tasman's hydrology team in 1992.

"There are not many people who put 50 years into one organisation," Mr Bush-King said yesterday. "It shows loyalty to the core."

The Napier Mail