Northland’s Wairua River with a 750 sq km catchment is one of the major rivers flowing into the Kaipara Harbour — our largest estuary, a nursery area for snapper and other fish and an essential habitat for migratory waders. The Wairua drains what was once the magnificent Hikurangi Swamp. Sadly, this is now largely drained and converted to farmland.
The muddy brown waters of the Wairua show our mistreatment of rivers and our gross carelessness about their health and our own.
Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman and I paddled a seven km stretch of the Wairau River and Waipau Stream west of Whangarei to support the work of Northland river kaitiaki, Millan Ruka. Millan’s efforts to protect the north’s waterways were earlier this month reported by Close Up. Helped by Hapū Te Urirori, Millan has been patrolling the Wairua and other rivers in his flat bottomed river boat, Kiorewai. Millan has documented numerous breaches of the Clean Streams Accord and local farmers’ failure to keep their stock out of streams and implement even the most basic riparian management.
Paddling down the Wairua we saw plenty of fencing dividing paddocks perpendicular to the river but little fencing along the banks to keep stock out of the river. We saw a large natural seep and spring on the riverbank, heavily pugged by stock so that the clear spring water carried mud and cow dung directly into the river.
There were plenty of Fonterra “It starts here” signs on farm gates but scant evidence of river care starting alongside milk making. Instead, there was areas of closely cropped grass, muddy, trampled banks weeping silt, cows eyeing us curiously and even a dairy farm raceway and effluent pond sited on top of the riverbank with no buffering vegetation. Rain would flush dung and sediment from the race directly into the river.
Ruining rivers is not an acceptable consequence of dairying and farm intensification, however much it increases GDP.
Millan’s careful and detailed reports to Fonterra and Northland Regional Council have led to no remedial or enforcement action. This underlines the shortcomings of the voluntary approach and National’s laissez faire attitude to rivers. We have a plethora of different permissive approaches by regional and unitary councils and scant action.
We urgently need stronger national policy under the RMA and national environmental standards to get cows out of creeks, stop further intensification in sensitive catchments and achieve an industry wide commitment to planted riparian setbacks.
Despite its burden of silt and elevated levels of e-coli, nitrogen and phosphorus, there is hope for the Wairua.
At the start of the paddle we released thousands of tuna/eel elvers into the river. Hapū Te Parawhau, Ngāti Hau and Te Urioroi have saved several million elvers from being shredded in the Wairua power scheme by catching and releasing them.
It is one of nature’s miracles that these tiny elvers, around 5 cm long and as fine as a strand of knitting wool, have been carried by currents from near Tonga, where their parents spawned, to the mouth of the Kaipara Harbour and then swum up the Wairua River.
Making space for nature would allow another miracle on the Wairua. Individual old man totara and remnant kahikatea, puriri and kowhai trees survive in a narrow strip along sections of riverbank. They are reminders of what was and what could be in this ancient riverine landscape.
With cattle having free access there is no regeneration. When the older trees die there will be no saplings to replace them. However, if a generous setback was fenced off, nature would recreate a protective and dramatic river corridor.