The Act of 1941 and Administration
Prior to 1941 river-control work in New Zealand was mostly carried out in piecemeal fashion with little appreciation of the causes of the more frequent and damaging floods and of the need for overall planning. River boards were established in 1884 to protect the more important rural and urban areas against flooding and did much good work as far as their limited resources would allow. The authority of boards usually extended over limited lengths of river; raising the necessary finance was difficult, and there was no assurance of Government subsidies. In these conditions it was difficult to plan and carry out works along the best lines to meet the increasing demands for better protection; consequently, works were often designed to meet the immediate problem. Threats to communications and other public utilities were usually met by the Ministry of Works, Railways Department, or county councils carrying out their own protective works.
The increase in flood damage, the deterioration of river channels, and general lack of progress in river control to meet increasing development, coupled with the growing awareness of the problems of soil erosion and deterioration of our hill country, led in 1941 to the passing of the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act, which included amongst its primary objectives the control of rivers, prevention of damage by floods, the control of erosion, and the promotion of soil conservation. The Act made provision for the establishment of the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council as the national authority in these matters, responsible to the Government through the Minister of Works. The Council consists of 14 members representing catchment boards, catchment commissions, county councils, municipalities, river and drainage boards, Federated Farmers, and Ministry of Works, Agriculture, Lands and Survey, Forest Service, and Treasury Departments, with an independent chairman.
Broadly, the function of the Council is to establish policy; to initiate the carrying out of surveys and investigations; to collect and publish information; to set up standards of work; to allocate finance; and generally to coordinate the activities of Departments, local bodies, and other organisations throughout the country in so far as they are concerned with soil conservation and river control. The work of the Council is administered through the Ministry of Works and the Department of Agriculture, and sufficient funds are appropriated annually for the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control vote to cover administration and works programmes.
The Act also provides for the establishment of catchment boards and catchment commissions as district executive authorities working under the general supervision of the Council on soil conservation and river-control work. Catchment districts normally cover a number of complete catchments with a community of interests and may vary in area from 1,500 to 13,000 square miles. Finance is allocated to these authorities by the Council annually to enable them to function, and boards and commissions submit proposals to the Council for checking of technical and economic aspects and consideration of subsidy. The same functions are also performed by the Waikato Valley Authority which, set up under a special Act, is responsible directly to the Minister of Works instead of to the Council.
Most of the old river boards and some of the drainage boards within catchment districts were abolished soon after the new authorities were set up, their powers and functions being taken over by catchment boards. Those internal drainage authorities which remain come under the supervision of catchment boards and the Waikato Valley Authority. Catchment boards have both elective and nominated members representative of local and Government interests. The members of the catchment commissions and Waikato Valley Authority are nominated from both local bodies and Government Departments. The 13 catchment boards, the Waikato Valley Authority, and one catchment commission already established, cover approximately 70 per cent of the country. Three additional catchment commissions are in the process of being set up, and practically the whole of the country will ultimately be covered by these special authorities. A limited amount of river control and a considerable amount of drainage work (concerned with specific local problems) is carried out by river and drainage boards which also qualify for financial assistance from the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council.