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Reminiscences of a raceman

Reminiscences of a raceman
In his early days as a raceman Neill Stevens clocked up a lot of kilometres managing the water flow in the canal.

Neill Stevens has always had a fascination with water, from boating to working as a raceman on New Zealand’s largest water supply scheme.

He started working on the canals that make up the 67km-long Rangitata Diversion Race (RDR) in 1994, not long after he returned from Australia.

He was the first of two fulltime employees of company that looks after the race ¬¬¬- RDR Management Limited. One employee was office-based, while Neill’s job was out in the field, delivering water and looking after the irrigation system with the help of a part-timer.

“Back in those days, everything was manually operated.

“There was nothing on the RDR to tell you what water was in there, except for the intake at Rangitata River at Klondyke.”

Part of Neill’s work day was to drive around and read all the water gauges to plan and manage the irrigation supply.

His job was to ensure water was delivered to the right place and that farmers didn’t run out of water.

A typical day would start early, with water orders. Neill would be on the road by 5.30am to check water levels and wind the gates on the water race up and down and send water to where it was needed.

“Then you had to wait for the right amount of water to flow through,” Neill said.

Some of the canal gates had electric motors done on a timer, but others didn’t.

There was a lot of running around to keep an eye on the canal and the water flow.

Neill clocked up a lot of kilometres, but farmers along the scheme used to lend a hand, he said.

Deidre, his wife, would often accompany Neill when he was out on the canal.

“She’d sit in the truck and keep an eye out for me.”

Another part of Neill’s role, and perhaps a personal highlight, was operating the dragline to dredge gravel out of the canal.

“It’s like a hydraulic excavator - but different.”

If you don’t have a dragline dredging you won’t have water, he said.

Neill learned the ropes on the old RDR dragline which is on display at the Plains Museum.

Back in 2015, Neill helped select the $1 million upgraded dragline for the RDR. It was ordered from Germany and arrived in 2016.

“It’s a nice machine to drive but it’s quite mentally tiring. There’s a lot of eyeballing to make sure it is cleaning the canal properly.”

Neill said there were only two or three dragline operators left around the district.

“It’s becoming a dying art.”

With the use of spray irrigation, the amount of land under irrigation had increased without increasing the amount of water brought into the canal, Neill said.

“In the early days of the RDR, it was all flood irrigation.”

Now it is spray irrigation which allows farmers to water where it is needed.

“It’s much more productive,” Neill said.

There’s always been an irrigation season, running from September to May. Outside of that period, the water goes to the Highbank Power Station near the banks of the Rakaia River to generate hydroelectricity.

It takes about 12 hours for the water to run the length of the RDR from the Rangitata intake to Highbank, Neil said.

When not managing water flow through the RDR, Neill was involved in spraying and clearing weeds, fencing and even repairing bridges.

One of the funniest moments happened about a year after Neill started work on the RDR.

There was a call from Highbank to say they had run out of water.

“I thought ‘If they’ve run out of water, there must be a huge hole somewhere’.”

But after a bit of panic and investigation, it turned out there was a new chap on the block who had run the power station too hard.

Telemetry to automatically read and relay data was slowly introduced and installed across the race network, with the RDR being managed electronically through a computer system since 2010.

Neill said there was more personal contact with the local farmers in the earlier years and things were managed via radio or later with mobile phones.

“Telemetry has made things easy. You can see where the water is in the canal at any time and we’re now able to manage it all online.”

Neill retired last year and now works part-time on the RDR helping with the dragline and weed control among other things.

He said he’s the last of the old guard to hand over the baton.

Neill has seen a lot changes over the years. When he started there were four offtakes from the canal, now there are 27.

“There’s more complexity to the system compared to what it used to be - but a lot more is done online now.

“You’d never be able to manage it the way I used to do it,” Neill said.

If the alarm went off at the Rangitata intake you had no idea if it was triggered by a power failure, abnormal water level, or an intruder.

“You’d hop in the vehicle not knowing what you were going to find.”

Now there are backup generators at all the crucial sites, and with telemetry, you can control it from home, he said.

While the RDR had seen a few modifications, Neill said it still operated as a gravity-fed system pretty much as it was built back in the 1940s.

He fondly remembers spending a day with Bill Hopkinson in 1995 showing him around the RDR.

Hopkinson had worked on the construction of the RDR, a job creation project run by the Ministry of Works during the 1940s depression.

In his early days, Neill was also involved in water consents and helping scientists gather data on the river systems.

“It involved a lot of walking in riverbeds and a lot of photos.”

He was also involved with the early fish studies and monitoring, going back to 1998. But left not long after the new fish screens were installed in 2022.

  • Sharon Davis