In 2007 Taranaki’s Waitara River ranked dead last on the Ministry for the Environment recreational river water quality league table. ). It came in 73rd out of 77 in NIWA’s league tables published in 2010. Both times elevated levels of E. Coli were the main cause of the low ranking.
So the Waitara was an obvious candidate for our Dirty Water Tour, highlighting community initiatives to clean up our rivers, lakes and estuaries. Paddling such a dirty river, however, was not an altogether attractive prospect. The hot sunny day and a very warm welcome from Cathy, Emily, Robbie, Margaret and other members and supporters of Friends of Waitara changed that.
Despite the looming chimneys of the Methanex plant on its south bank the Waitara is a beautiful river with recent plantings of flax, coprosmas and other natives and the tide enhancing the flow in the lower reaches.
On a hot summer’s day, what better place to cool off than the local river ? As our flotilla of waka ama and kayak paddled downstream, we saw others enjoying the water. They included two rowing skiffs with coaches calling instructions to their student crews, a couple on paddleboards, water skiers, two sea kayakers, swimmers and a dozen or more kids doing spectacular leaps from the main road bridge, oblivious to the elevated e-coli levels. I hope no one went home sick. If the river were cleaner, then more people would swim.
Riverbank stones exposed by the low summer flows had a thick silty crust. Tonnes of soil have washed from the land into the river, smothering aquatic habitat. Despite Taranaki Regional Council’s (TRC) progressive riparian planting scheme, many more kilometres need to be planted to buffer the river.
It has been a long and hard battle to improve the health of the Waitara and the adjacent coast. There are no longer cases of typhoid and dysentery associated with poor sewage treatment as there were in the late 1960s. The former CWS meatworks in Waitara is now a smallgoods factory. The river no longer runs red with offal and freezing works waste. But intensive dairying in recent decades has substantially increased the nutrient and pollution load.
Waitara resident, Trevor Dodunski says, “As a child I used to be able to drink the water in our streams. The streams coming off the mountain [Taranaki] are no longer crystal clear. You used to be able to see the rocks at the bottom of pools 6-8 feet deep. You can’t now. We used to get so much of our food from the river and the land. You used to be able to find eels, trout and cockabullies in abundance. You can’t now. The state of our rivers today is a disgrace
Sewage from Waitara township and industrial discharges (from the Motunui and the Methanex plants) from an ocean outfall still foul Te Atiawa’s famous offshore reefs and the ability to gather kai there, even if TRC claims otherwise. Locals say surfers suffer from infected sores and cuts.
There are plans to pipe Waitara’s wastewater and sewage (which currently is only milliscreened and UV treated) to New Plymouth for tertiary treatment and discharge through the city’s ocean outfall. But the Waitara District Council’s outfall will still take overflow events and the industrial discharges.
Friends of Waitara got the resource consent conditions improved in the recent resource consent hearings. Appallingly TRC is charging them $12,000 towards the cost of external hearing commissioners. I have written to TRC asking the council to waive the charge. With the district council operating the outfall, councillors should not be deciding the resource consent to operate it.
Friends of Waitara are working hard to improve the river’s health and community’s enjoyment of the river. As part of the paddle I was pleased to “open” new two comfortable wooden seats on a riverbank reserve. Taranaki Regional Council said the seats would cost $6000. Gifting their time, Friends built them for around $700. They make a lovely place to contemplate the river but those who care for the river will not spend long resting there.