Opening Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere


Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere level information

Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere is currently CLOSED to the sea. The calm average level as at 0800 hrs on Monday 20th May was 0.74m.

The next regular update will be on the 27th of May 2024.

           Q: What was the lake level reading before this one?
           A: 0.72m. The calm average level at 0800hrs on Monday 13th May 2024

Q: When was the lake last opened to the sea?
A: The lake was mechanically opened on 18th November 2023 and closed naturally on 1st January 2024.

Q: At what levels can the lake be opened to the sea at this time of year?

A: From the 1st April to 15th June : Any level  (fish passage, otherwise 1st April to 31st July 1.13m)


See all frequently asked questions.

24/7 access to Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere water levels:

Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere levels are now available on our river flow data webpage. These levels are average readings taken from the two gauges around the lake, one at Taumutu and the other at Seabridge Road/Nutts Cut. Please note that wind effect should be taken into account when interpreting this raw data. The wind information is currently not provided on the public webpage, however, it may be requested by contacting Customer Services.

Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere is the largest lake in Canterbury and has no natural outlet to the sea. It is valued for cultural and environmental reasons and was opened by generations of Ngāi Tahu before Pākehā arrival. The first written settler's record of an artificial opening between the lake and sea was in 1852. It has been opened over 300 times since.

Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere's opening is governed by a National Water Conservation Order and a range of resource consents held jointly by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Environment Canterbury. However, many groups have an opportunity to air their views before a final decision is made.

Openings tend to be aligned with fish migration periods and other habitat values of the lake. Tuna (freshwater eels) come in from April to June via kōumu/drains or a full opening. Pātiki/flounder, inānga/whitebait, sea-run trout and other species enter the lake around September and October.

Factors to take into account include:

  • access for traditional mahinga kai including gathering of swan's eggs
  • avoiding low lake levels in summer and desiccation of wetland margins
  • the need for variation in lake levels to support complex and diverse wetland bird and plant habitats
  • managing land inundation (including from wind effects)
  • the effects of high lake levels on drain networks and infrastructure.

Experts provide technical advice around the machinery. The weather and sea conditions are forecast while lake levels are monitored. It generally takes three to seven days to forge the opening but if sea conditions are rough, past experience has shown it could take up to six weeks.

Historical methods for opening the lake have included horse-drawn scoops and two outlet culverts in the early part of the 20th century - Dobson’s Culvert and Pannett’s Culvert. Heavy machinery has been used since the 1930s. For more details, visit the Te Waihora website.

Once the lake is opened, there is limited ability to control how long it stays that way. The length is determined by weather and sea conditions, and how quickly gravel is deposited by the sea to close the cut.

Artificial closure has not been attempted to date however the water order allows for the lake to be artificially closed when it reaches 0.6 metres above sea level between 1 October and 31 March. Such a closure would only be considered in summer if lake levels were very low and sea conditions were too calm to create natural closure.

We monitor effects of the lake opening including:

  • keeping an eye on channels through the spit from the lake edge to assist tuna/freshwater eel migration
  • sediment sampling and experimental dredging of the deeper channels of the lake bed to work out whether this will result in greater flushing to improve water quality and associated wildlife and mahinga kai values
  • investigating the feasibility of opening the lake at the southern end of Te Korua near the mouth of the Waikekewai Creek and the conditions needed in the lake to make a successful opening in this area (Te Korua was the traditional opening site used by Ngāi Tahu)
  • investigating the feasibility of establishing a controlled outlet from Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere to the sea.

Frequently asked questions

How long and when was the lake opened over the past 5 years?
Date opened Date closed Days open
20/06/2019 8/07/2019 18
7/08/2019 2/09/2019 26
9/10/2019 4/11/2019 26
16/07/2020 11/08/2020 26
05/06/2021 18/06/2021 13
15/07/2021 06/08/21 22
24/08/2021 01/09/2021 8
20/09/2021 04/10/2021 14
20/02/2022 18/03/2022 26
18/07/2022 16/08/2022 27
20/09/2022 02/10/22 12
26/03/2023 26/04/2023 25
25/05/2023 27/06/2023 33
29/07/2023 30/08/2023 32
18/11/2023 1/01/2024 44


Why is Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere artificially opened?
Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere has no natural outlet to the sea, so intervention is required to manage the level of the lake and to ensure connectivity between the lake and the sea for migratory fish.

High lake levels can result in flooding of land surrounding the lake and reduce the efficiency of local drainage systems. Other drivers for opening the lake include recognising the value of the lake for mahinga kai, wildlife and wetland vegetation.
When can Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere be opened?
The National Water Conservation (Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere) Order 1990 (NWCO) sets the minimum potential opening levels above which opening to the sea can be considered.

The lake may be opened to the sea whenever the lake level:
  • exceeds 1.05 metres above mean sea level, from 1 August to 31 March; or
  • exceeds 1.13 m above mean sea level, from 1 April to 31 July; or
  • at any level, from 15 September to 15 October; or
  • at any level, from 1 April to 15 June.
“Any level” opening periods are for the purpose of facilitating fish passage and enhancing outstanding wildlife values.
Can Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere be artificially closed?
Although it has never been attempted, the resource consent allows the lake to be artificially closed whenever the lake level is below 0.6 metres above mean sea level, from 1 October to 31 March.

Closing of the lake may be required to prevent extended periods of low lake levels over summer. Low lake levels impact water quality, lake edge vegetation and ecology within the lake.

The physical constraints of working on the beach, the wave environment and the very low lake level mean that artificially closing the lake would be very difficult and may only be successful if the lake was closing naturally.
How are decisions made on when to open Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere?
The decision to open the lake is made jointly by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Environment Canterbury. The decision-makers are required by the consent conditions to give consideration to different values including protection of outstanding habitats, values associated with tikanga Māori, mahinga kai, summer lake levels, managing land inundation, tuna/eel migration and effects on drainage infrastructure.

A consultation group made up of a number of organisations representing different interests, give advice on the potential opening. The consultation process is set out in the Resource Consent Consultation Protocol. The consultation group is:
  • Te Taumutu Rūnanga
  • The Department of Conservation
  • Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora Rating District Liaison Committee
  • North Canterbury Fish and Game Council
  • Lake Ellesmere Commercial Fishermen
  • Selwyn District Council
  • Christchurch City Council
  • Waihora Ellesmere Trust (Key Advisor)
How is an opening made?
An opening is achieved by making a pilot channel through Kaitorete near Taumutu. The constructed channel is on average 15 metres wide, 1.8 metres deep and up to 300 metres long, depending on the volume of shingle overwash into the lake.

The channel connects to a deepwater pool within the lake that is widened at the lake end to maximise flow into the channel. This pool is protected by a seawall (a gravel bund) to prevent shingle infill. The difference in water levels between the lake and the sea is another vital factor for opening the lake.

The final cut to the sea is typically made a couple of hours after high tide to take advantage of the largest difference in water levels at low tide. The opening is then left to scour naturally.

The mouth of the channel may develop to be more than 100 metres wide and 3-5 metres deep.
What machinery is used to open Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere?
Heavy earthmoving machinery is used to make the pilot channel. A typical operation would include a D9 bulldozer, one/two D7 bulldozer(s) and one 20T excavator. A 30RB dragline is also used occasionally.
How much does each opening cost?
The cost of each opening ranges from $20,000 to $150,000 depending on the amount of work. The operation is funded through targeted, works and services, and general rates. Central Plains Water Trust also contributes to the operation.
What determines a successful opening?
The success of a lake opening depends heavily on favourable weather conditions. Wind strength, wind direction, sea swell, wave directions and the tides are all factors that can affect openings.

In difficult weather and adverse sea conditions, multiple attempts may be necessary and a successful opening may take weeks or even months to achieve.

An opening is considered “successful” when it persists for at least four days (the amount of time required on average to lower the lake level below the opening threshold).
Are there other ways that Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere can be opened to the sea?
Many alternative options have been investigated, including:
  • culverts/weirs/syphons
  • diverting the lake outfall to the Rakaia River mouth
  • diverting via the Huritini/Halswell River to the Ihutai/Avon-Heathcote Estuary
  • diverting via a canal to Wairewa/Lake Forsyth
  • a breakwater to protect the opening.
All of these have been proven to be impractical, impossible or too expensive to construct and maintain.