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The Pareora Dam

South Canterbury

South Canterbury's heritage of water online.

Water was, and still is, the lifeblood to any community. Timaru needed a sufficient water supply for the health and comfort of its population. A practical digger, a man who has had long and varied experience in water races in Otago, was asked to make a rough survey of the country at the back of Timaru and his plan was accepted and submitted a tender -'no water, no pay.'  The Council backed the Otago digger over the a C.E. as the digger's plan was cheap. The Pareora Dam and a series of races and tunnels to a bluestone-lined reservoir above Centennial Park were completed in 1881 and served Timaru until 1939. The reservoir was in use until 1960, when a new one was built at Claremont. The water travelled from the dam about twenty six miles, the average width and depth being two feet six inches but brought the water a distance of sixteen miles as the crow flies. The raceman's cob cottage was considered a significant aspect of Timaru's heritage until is was destroyed in August 2007.   

Otago Witness, 16 June 1866, Page 11
We extract the following from the " Timaru Herald" of 8th June: — The Municipal Council deserve considerable praise for energetically taking up the question of a supply of water for Timaru ; and from what we can learn, their labors are likely to be crowned with success more complete than the most sanguine of that body ever conceived. The Council a short time since employed Mr Frazer, a practical digger, a man who has had long and varied experience in water races in Otago, to make a rough survey of the country at the back of Timaru, to the Pareora river, to ascertain the practicability of bringing water into Timaru by a race from that river. The report has been made public, and is of the most favorable character. The whole work can be executed for something less than two thousand pounds, and a supply of the purest, water delivered throughout the town at the rate of three thousand gallons per minute —an ample supply for a very large population. The water will be brought a distance of sixteen or eighteen miles; but the whole work can, we understand, be executed without any "fluming," except a few yards across the head waters of the Otipua Creek. Mr Frazer has undertaken to send in a tender for the work, when the Council are prepared to undertake it, with the condition that if he in any way fails in delivering the water where required, that he will forfeit all payments on account of the work ; or as he expresses his meaning, 'no water, no pay.' The Municipal Council have now made application to the Government to grant the money required for this most necessary work ; and we would urge upon the Government the advisability, the necessity, and the justice, of complying with the request. It is a work which is necessary for the health and comfort of a large population, and which may be done at a very trifling expense.

Timaru Herald 6 and 13 March 1872 page 5
The Timaru Water Supply

The want of an efficient water supply in Timaru was checking the prosperity of one of the most flourishing district towns in the colony, said Mr Rolleston. An Otago digger and a C.E. are two very different personages, the one has a science attained by practice, the other the science learnt by books, we back the digger in the mater of cheap water races. Let the Council look to the practical digger, the man who, in the mountainous districts of Otago, has brought water miles further, and over far more difficult ground than would be traversed by a water lead into Timaru. As Timaru wants water but cannot afford expensive water works, cannot it be attained in the manner indicated?

Timaru needed a sufficient water supply and on 10th February 1872 the Government accepted and approved a proposal. On March 5th a public holiday was declared and 200 people witnessed the first two blasts at the Pareora.  The water race was completed on 10th December 1874 and a revision with iron pipes officially opened on 16th December 1881.

Today, 2007, Timaru draws its water from two sources, the Pareora River at the Upper Gorge and the Opihi River near Pleasant Point. The water is piped to the Claremont Reservoir where it is treated with ozone and chlorine. Ozone kills bacteria and protozoa and chlorine is used to prevent recontamination.

Evening Post, 17 December 1874, Page 2
Contrary to general expectations, and in spite of all the predictions of croakers who maintained that until water could be persuaded to run up hill the Pareora waterrace would never be accomplished, the water from the Pareora has been (says the Herald) actually brought into Timaru. The first sod of the water-race was cut by Mr. Cain, the then Mayor of Timaru, on the 3d of March, 1873, and with some slight interruptions the labor of making the channel, has been steadily progressing ever since. From the spot where the water is drawn from the Pareora river to the town of Timaru, following the course of the water-race, the distance is about 36 miles, although by the road it is not more than 16.

The Timaru Herald of 12th April 1875 page 4 column 1 contains a detailed account of the whole work, race and reservoir. James Fraser, a practical miner, was the original constructor of the works. Summerized.

Mr George Cliff, the mayor, and Councillor Padget, accompanied by Mr James Fraser, the contractor, Mr W. Williamson the engineer for the work, Mr Lough, the Town Clerk and a representative of the Press inspected the Pareora water race. The party - of whom two were on horse back, and the rest in a two horse buggy - left town about 12 noon and followed the line of the race till reaching Mr D. Fyfe's on the Otipua Creek, here an extensive iron flute is suspended from one side of the creek to the other. The journey was continued across several farms, which serpentine-like the race intersects. Arriving at Briggs; gully by way of the new cutting leading from the Timaru downs to the Pareora flat another stoppage was made for the purpose of examining the iron flute which spans this gully. Leaving this spot, the travellers proceeded across the Pareora flat and river to Mr Elworthy's homestead, and along the gorge on the left bank of the river to Mr Pratt's, the road contractor's camp, where the horses were kindly left and attended to by the men there. The party proceeded on foot, forded the Pareora to the north bank about a mile from the camp, where the gorge is contracted to very narrow dimensions, the sides being of rock and in places nearly perpendicular, and walked along the ledge formed by the lower side of the race for about a mile- the point where the water enters the race. It was nearly six o'clock, and getting dark, a short cut to the camp was taken, the party clambering u the steep hillside and reaching the road which is being cut through the gorge by Mr Pratt. Timaru was reached by a little after 10 o'clock. There was no moon and it was dark.


The total length of the race from head to Timaru is thirty six miles, the average width and depth being two feet six inches. At the point where the race starts from the river, injury to the cutting as regards to being washed away by floods is impossible, as it is blasted out of solid rock. The bottom of the race is below the bed of the river and as there is always water in the Pareora and a perpetual supply is secured. The first miles and a quarter of the race, which runs along close to the river, and very little above the level of the stream, is blasted out of solid rock.

You can still pick out were the water race course ran, 2005 & 2011.

For the next three quarters of a mile the race turns off a little distance from the river through some moderately level ground which was pretty easy to cut. Leaving this length the race is carried across Tiko's flat in a wooden flume seven chains long, supported by tressels of five by five inch timber, twelve in number, each tressel being about twelve feet high. From the south end of the flume the race is cut round Mount horrible for about four miles, principally through a limestone rock formation which required blasting. From the place where the river is tapped to the end of the four mile length last alluded to, the race is situated on the Levels run. From the edge of the run to Briggs' gully the race runs in a tortuous course on the plain the property of the New Zealand Meat Preserving Company. The gully is spanned by a flume eight chains in length. The flume, which is in the form of a circular pipe one foot in diameter, is of galvanised iron, the joints being soldered and riverted. Totara posts were sunken fourteen feet in the ground on the west and east banks of the gully. Between these posts are ten wooden supports, the stems of large trees, the butts of each being fully fixed in the bottom of the gully. The longest of these supports is 62 feet, four of them are 57 feet. At the top of each post is a large iron ring, through which the flume passes. From the gully the race extends along the siding through the Otipua station property, the blue stone rock occasionally met with. Owning to the knowledge the contactor had obtained, he tunnelled underneath the rock layer, and he was right. He commenced work at each side of the hill, making excavation four feet six inches high, and two feet six inches wide. The character of the ground was gravelly. The roof was formed by the rock layer. The light of the tunnel is 670 feet. From the tunnel the race continues on the Otipua Station for three miles, and then passes through the farms of Messrs White, Tregenza, Boncher, Graham (the educational reserve), and Johnson. It afterwards passes through another portion of the educational reserve in the occupation of Mr Graham and across Mr Landsborough's farm to Otipua Creek. Here the race is carried over the deep gully by means of a flume similar to the one at Brigg's gully with the exceptions that it is but six inches in diameter...This flume is 600 feet long. From the flume the race extends through Mr D. Fyfe's and Mr T.W. Fyfe's farms, and along the southern side of the road leading from the Otipua Creek to the Rev. Mr Foster's farm.

At this farm it branches off and is carried down the road extending to the western end of North street. From the race at this point three branches are cut leading through different parts of town. One branch passes through Mr Wilson's land to Bank gully, which leads to the Bank of New Zealand and finds an outlet to the sea through the culvert near the George street Landing Service. A second branch is taken through land in the occupation of Mr J. Wild and Mr Scarf to North street, extends along this street for some distance, and is then taken across Mr Cain's land and Mr Buchanan's land to Brown street gully, the water gaining the sea near the Commercial Hotel. The other branch runs across the western end of North street and into the gully which intersects Mr Archer's and Mr Cain's properties and finally the Domain emptying at the north side of Peeress Town. Here and there along the race, where gullies were unavoidable, wooden flumings have been erected and at  various points by washes have been made to prevent the water rising higher then a certain level. The race has an average fall of about 6ft a mile for the whole distance. The work has been completed in six months. The cost of maintenance has not exceeded £20.

The reservoir is situated on Mr Landborough's land, on the western bank of the Otipua Creek. Is 437ft long on the top and 130ft wide, 21ft 6in deep, and 370 feet long on the bottom and the end 66ft wide. Its holding capacity is 5,000,000 gallons, sufficient to supply a town containing ten times the population of Timaru. The site of the reservoir is 200ft above sea level, or to put it on a manner easier to comprehend about 20ft above the Windmill fans. Iron pipes leading to the town from the reservoir will be embedded in the ground of the creek and carried through Mr Hugh Fraser's and Mr Double's land, and end along North Street to the town boundary. The contractors construction for the race was  £3010 and  £156 for keeping it in repair for twelve months after completion. The contract for the excavation of the reservoir was £2550. Total cost  £5716. This money was provided by the Provincial Council and expended under the direction of the Timaru Borough Council.

Timaru Herald, 24 December 1878, Page 2
The work of constructing a dam across the Pareora, for the purposes of the water-race, has been commenced, and a good deal of the necessary material is already on the ground. At first tenders were called for constructing the dam, and Mr Silas Sibly's tender being the lowest, it was accepted. Subsequently, Mr Sibly withdrew from the contract, unless the Council agreed to release him from certain conditions, which would involve the maintenance of the dam for six months after its completion. This the Council refused to do, and after a stormy debate they agreed to carry on the work by day labor, under the supervision of the Engineer. The work has been going on for the last few days and it is expected that it will be done at much less cost than the amount of Mr Sibly's tender.

1910 T. Wagstaff, Timaru No. T.3

Star 1 November 1881, Page 3
A Big Dam. To-day, at the invitation of his Worship the Mayor (Captain Sutter) a large number of influential citizens visited the dam at the head of the water-works to witness the turning on of the water into the race leading to town. The race is fully 20 miles long.

Pareora water race c.1908
Pareora water race c.1908

The Adair Road cob cottage burnt
By Claire Haren - The Timaru Herald | Monday, 13 August 2007

Timaru's water supply, developed in the late 1870s and early 1880s, saw water fed from the original Pareora dam through a series of races and tunnels into the town to a bluestone-lined reservoir above Centennial Park. The cob two-roomed cottage, most likely built by the council of the day, provided accommodation for the raceman, the person responsible for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the scheme. It was considered a significant aspect of Timaru's heritage as the raceman's cottage for the town's first water supply.

Timaru Herald 10/07/2014
A dam fine piece of paradise. Growing up in Timaru means you know all about South Canterbury and South Canterbury is cool. The countryside is gorgeous. And speaking of gorges. I am going to let you in on my secret, special place. First you get to a spot called Evans Crossing along the Pareora River. There is a sign explaining the walk is an 80-minute return trip but you could be at the destination in 20 minutes quite easily.

Dam danger. Sept. 2015

Fine weather is linked to water deaths.

North Otago Times, 9 January 1879, Page 2

The following explanation of the supposed drowning case near Timaru, appears in the Herald of yesterday : — A paragraph appeared in our issue of yesterday stating that the clothes of a man had been found on the bank of the Pareora river, and that it was supposed the owner had been drowned. The matter has since been inquired into by Constable Stanley, of Pleasant Point, who found the owner of the clothes sleeping in shepherd's hut, in the vicinity of the place where the clothes were found. It appears that the man, while in a state of drunkeness, wandered away from his camp, stripped off his clothes, and made his way to the shepherd's hut, where he slept himself sober."

Timaru Herald December 24 1882

Thomas  D SNEATH  - "While bathing in a waterhole in the Pareora River"

Timaru Herald  January 14, 2005
She was trapped by the flow of water at the base of the dam.

Tara MacPherson, a 17-year-old, slipped while walking across the Pareora Dam at Motukaika. Bystanders tried frantically to save her after she fell into a dam south west of Timaru.  She was trapped by the flow of water at the base of the dam because of the volume of water and the turbulence, rescuers were unable to get to her. He says two men attempted to pull the woman from the water. The men and two women then tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate the young woman. The eroding of the top of the dam is one issue, as is the lack of signs warning that walking on the structure can be dangerous. The dam is more than 120 years old, built as part of a scheme to bring water to the developing Timaru borough.

2007: For most of the last 60 years the dam has served no useful purpose except for a swimming hole. Maybe the Timaru City Council dam should be removed by blowing it up. Another view.

 SAR 17 December 1995

Three men in their early to mid twenties entered the upper Pareora Gorge above the middle waterfall via a side creek. The Pareora river supplies Timaru with its water. The first member of the party jumped 6 or 7 metres down the middle waterfall jumping out far enough to clear the vortex at its base and be carried down by the river to a calmer pool. Looking back he noticed the second member of the party on his first trip through was caught in the vortex at the base of the fall. The third member had not jumped and threw down a log to assist the trapped person. The first person observed the trapped person being swept around and sucked down from time to time, eventually not resurfacing.  SAR called.

The Star 29 September 1876 pg 2
The New Zealand Disease

Inquests. Last year inquests were held in this Colony on 575 bodies (478 men and 97 women). Of these no less than 95 (80 men and 15 women) were accidentally drowned whilst 45 other verdicts of "Found drowned" were returned. Thirty-three (27 men and 6 women) had committed suicide. Heart disease caused 26 deaths (19 men and 7 women). Thirty-one, all men, were killed by falls of earth.

Drowning toll continues to decline
NZPA 9 January 2006

New Zealand's drowning toll has continued to fall, with 103 people dying in the water during 2005. The annual toll has gradually been decreasing, from an average 181 in the 1980s, to 143 in the 1990s, to 113 in 2004. Water Safety New Zealand was pleased with the low toll for 2005. However, there was still room for improvement. Seven pre-schoolers died last year, three of them in home pools. "Sadly supervision is still an issue for parents and caregivers whilst around the home, more often than not due to complacency."  Three-quarters (77) of drowning victims were male, and of those 46 per cent were aged 15-44. "It is pleasing to note that the typical Kiwi male is starting to observe some basic water safety principles and warnings."  More than half the victims were not planning to be in or on the water when they died, and 45% were recreational water users. Since 1986, 2841 people have drowned in New Zealand.

Drowning is the third highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand, behind road vehicle crashes and falls. Three-quarters of drowning victims are male. More than half the victims were not planning to be in or on the water when they died. For every one fatality there are 8 near fatal drowning incidents. Persons who drowned in NZ up to 1870
1865: 151- nine of them being females
1875: 164
1880: 165
1895: 166
1901: 142
1904: 171 (of these 28 were females)
1911, 1912, 1913: 485
1914,1915,1916: 502
1923, 1924,1925: 467
1985: 215 people drowned in NZ, a record high
1998: 148
2000: 132
2001: 121
2002: 139
2003: 126
2004: 113
2005: 103
2006: 91
2007: 106
2008: 96
2009: 98
2010: 87 people drowned in NZ, a record low (7 in Canterbury). Rivers continue to be the most dangerous environment with 29 fatalities in 2010
2011: 123
2012: 98
2013: 107
2014: 90
2015: 113 [ just over 80% were men, (91) 24 were between 15 to 24 yrs] [14 deaths in Canterbury]

In 2011, nationally there were 66 drownings during recreational activities - including while swimming (17) scuba diving and snorkelling (13) and shore-based fishing and power boating (both 11). There were 24 non-recreational drownings, and 30 drownings recorded as "other activities". There were also three unknown/unclassified fatal incidents. Beaches (with 29 deaths) overtook historical danger spot rivers (27 deaths) as the most common place for a drowning to occur. Maori continue to be over represented in drowning statistics. 24 Maori drowned in 2011. This is 20% of the total number of drowning victims, yet Maori make up 15% of the population.

In the ten years, from 2003 to 2013, 22 people have drowned in South Canterbury. Of that number 16 were male and 6 were female. Drowning is New Zealand's third highest cause of unintentional death in 2013. Most drownings were thought to occur in the first few minutes after falling into the water. The body's ''shock response'' is an early ''gasp response'' was followed by rapid hyperventilation and often when people gasped, they also breathed water into their lungs and drowned. Eight pre-school deaths. South Canterbury had no drowning deaths in 2014, while 90 people - mostly men - drowned in New Zealand in 2014.  The figures, released from Water Safety New Zealand, covered the Timaru, Mackenzie, Waimate and Waitaki districts. In 2013, there was one drowning death in Timaru. "Disappointingly, adult men continue their terrible track record making up more than 76 per cent of all drownings." In 2014, 69 males drowned and 21 females. 18 people drowned in inland still waters, 16 offshore and 14 in tidal waters. A third of the drownings were immersion incidents, where people had no intention of entering the water, which highlighted the need for people to learn swim and survival skills. No pre-schooler should be drowning.  20 of the drownings were in rivers.

Hope there are signs there at the dam to warn teenagers of the danger and the attempted rescue and ultimate recovery.

Dams are drowning machines and their hydraulic currents are deadly. Even a mild current is extremely powerful. Moving water presents many dangers, some hidden. Make several intelligent decisions and avoid low water bridges, dams, waterfalls and big rocks where water flows over an obstacle or fall and as it accelerates creates a partial flow back towards the obstacle or fall. These currents are powerful. Use common sense and portage. If trapped swim down and out along the bottom of the river. Rescuers can easily become victims.

pareora = a place of refuge

New Zealand River Drownings

South Canterbury NZGenWeb Project