The lakes' />

When it comes to saving the Waikato's significant but besieged peat lakes, the experts agree there is only one way to do it: prioritise.

The lakes may be internationally unique for having survived for 17,000 years, but the last 200 years of human interference has damaged the 40-odd lakes to such an extent that most are beyond saving with the paltry resources we allocate to such restoration projects.

Stop tinkering round the edges of the many, says the scientific consensus, and spend the limited funds on the few lakes that remain salvageable.

The good news is that in the last month some more funds have gone the way of peat lakes in the Waipa district.

In an interesting, possibly unique, deal, the regional council, Environment Waikato, and the Waipa District Council propose to simultaneously advance two environmental projects - one in the hills, the other in the plains lakes - with the same money.

The prospect of getting two bangs for a single buck arose after the Waipa council committed $1 million over 10 years to the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust, which is putting a pest-proof fence round Maungatautari to create a mainland wildlife sanctuary.

The council's money is drawn from levies paid by developers of new subdivisions or businesses in Waipa and was to be paid to the trust at the rate of $100,000 a year. That rate proved a bit slow for the trust, which aims to finish the fence by next year in time for a major pest eradication programme.

To assist both the mountain and the lakes, the two councils had something of a swap meet. Using its natural heritage fund, Environment Waikato will now advance, in one hit, $650,000 to the trust for the fence.

In return, Waipa will "pay back" the loan by spending the same amount of money on five threatened peat lakes: Maratoto, Ngaroto, Mangakaware, Rotomanuka and Rotopiko (Lake Serpentine).

Waipa deputy chief executive Garry Dyet says the money, whose use will be overseen by the members of the Waipa peat lakes and wetland accord, is tagged for capital works. It will be used to buy land and to help establish protective covenants.

The accord, designed to restore and enhance Waipa lakes and wetlands, was signed in 2002 between the regional and district councils, the Department of Conservation, Fish & Game and Ngaa Iwi Toopu o Waipa.

Tony Roxbrough, a 30-year DoC veteran who worked on wetlands for the Waikato conservancy, has recently joined Waipa and will oversee the lakes' restoration.

The whole project looks very promising. It could even be the "win-win" claimed by Waipa Mayor Alan Livingston, who was delighted to point out that it would not cost his ratepayers anything extra.

"The fence will be built more quickly, and the peat lakes in our district will receive some serious environmental attention. It's really a very good result."

But things look less rosy when you come back to that little matter of priorities. Four of the lakes chosen for restoration figure high on scientists' lists of those worth saving for their ecological value and, importantly, our ability to restore them.

But Lake Ngaroto, while popular for recreation use despite its often toxic water, is considered by some to be too degraded to be successfully restored, especially from a thinly spread fund.

Catherine Smith, head of Acre, an advisory committee to Environment Waikato, questioned the choice of lakes.

"You've got to pick winners," she said.

Even Ngaroto's staunchest ally, Murray Dench, had no idea why it should be included in the targeted five.

"They've spent $1.2 million there and it's deteriorated. I can't see $650,000 doing much when it's got to be shared around five lakes."

Dyet and Roxbrough are much more optimistic about Ngaroto's chances. Dyet believes planting round the lake is helping, and closing off drains flowing from adjacent farmland will be another significant step.

And while one school of thought believes the only real effort put into the Waikato's peat lakes has been to monitor their decline, Roxbrough says the installation of weirs, setting of minimum lake levels, creation of buffer zones and studies of pest fish and plants are making a difference.