Communities flooding as Rotorua district lakes rise dangerously high

Lakes in the Rotorua district are dangerously high and some communities are already drowning.

But is time running out for those living on nature's doorstep?

This year, the Rotorua Lakes region's already received close to its yearly average rainfall and Lake Rotomā is at its highest level since 1971.

Arapeta Tahana of Ngāti Pikiao said this is severely impacting homes and businesses.

"The environment may be changing that much we need to be a lot more adaptable."

Lake Rotomā doesn't have outlets like rivers to divert water so it just keeps getting higher.

There's an overflow channel into Lake Rotoehu, but Rotoehu is at full capacity, already flooding homes and roads.

"This situation is a good wake-up call, not just for us here," Tahana said. "But I think across the nation around understanding the fact that climate change is real and it's now on our doorstep."

There are a number of local councils, authorities and iwi groups charged with fixing roads, infrastructure and re-connecting communities.

Tahana said one of the solutions is using evaporation.

"So essentially big machines that suck up the water and evaporate it."

Another option is redirecting water.

"From a mana whenua perspective, we're not that keen on major engineering solutions."

Communities flooding as Rotorua district lakes rise dangerously high
Photo credit: The Hui

Te Arawa Lakes Trust biosecurity manager Wiremu Anaru works to protect the well-being of the lakes.

He said while there are devastating impacts from the high water levels, he's seeing positive benefits for the environment, like a reduction in major lake pests like catfish.

Anaru thinks these events are an opportunity to look at how we manage our waterways.

"At the end of the day, this is a taonga that keeps us all alive. That needs to be the driving force around why we actually look after it."

Helen Creagh, Rotorua catchments manager at the Bay of Plenty Regional Council Toi Moana, said it is now looking unlikely that Lake Rotomā will overflow as we are getting closer to the summer months and rainfall and lake level is decreasing.

"It is important to note that Bay of Plenty Regional Council has lake level records since 1953, and in that time Lake Rotomā has never reached this overflow level," Creagh said.

"Because we have no experience with it overflowing before, any predictions on its overflow are simply speculation.

"As the lake level rises it occupies a larger area and finds additional seepage pathways to release water.

"Time will tell if it overflows."

Made with support from New Zealand On Air and Te Māngai Pāho.