Last Wednesday, I went on a tour of some of Northland’s rivers with Millan Ruka from Environmental River Patrol as he monitored water quality throughout Te Tai Tokerau. The dry conditions meant we couldn’t use the boat but we visited a lot of waterways, and it was an amazing drive through beautiful rural countryside. What we saw was sobering and educational. We started at Poriti, the sacred springs where tangata whenua including Millan have fought for their water rights. The Waitangi Tribunal supported the case taken by tangata whenua and the NZ Maori Council that Maori do have proprietary rights over water in their rohe. However, the battles continue.
It was great to see the areas along the Wairua and Mangakahia Rivers where a combination of encouragement, naming and shaming has led to fencing and planting to keep stock out of the rivers. Nevertheless it should not be up to champions like Millan and the local hapu to apply pressure. The Regional Council and Fonterra need to make sure there are consequences for farmers who don’t manage their cows’ effluent ponds appropriately, discharge effluent into our waterways, or let stock graze near or in waterways. The latest report on regional growth issues in Te Tai Tokerau states that 20% of farms are still doing these things, and are not compliant with water pollution management practices. Then they advocate for more cows on farms.
Even with fences or hot wires that some farmers have used to mitigate effluent getting into our water, the water quality in some of the rivers is very poor, and seemed thick with a slimy unnatural algae. Some of the effluent ponds looked pretty rough and Millan told me that farms can be expanded but with no requirement for additional ponds.
However it was inspiring to visit the power station on the Wairua River where the tangata whenua and Northpower work together to save the elvers (junior eels) from getting crushed in the station and are helping to rebuild the species. These tiny tenacious creatures face giant modifications of their environment, but thanks to the kaitiaki and Bill at the power station, they have a chance.
The last place we visited was the Hikurangi swamp, which is 80kms of canals and dairy farms. Some of it is well managed and some of it creating a risk to the Kaipara Harbour. Be it contamination from pathogens like e. coli, sediment, or nutrients like nitrogen, it all affects the water downstream and reflects a heavily modified environment where water quality has not been prioritised. All the voluntary accords and rhetoric in the world won’t fix it, but Millan Ruka has made a difference with his camera and his commitment and it’s time everyone else caught up. The Green goal of swimmable rivers is achievable if we all put water quality first.