Catherine Delahunty and Mojo Mathers at Waikirikiri Selwyn River at Coe's Ford

A day by the Waikirikiri/Selwyn River

This week, I went to Canterbury to meet a river, the Waikirikiri/Selwyn, which flows from the hill country down to Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere through the Canterbury Plains. Mojo Mathers and local Green District Councillor for Selwyn Peter Hill took me for a drive out to Coe’s Ford as the best place to start. I had been there once before last year and since then had been following the periodic media alerts about it being closed for swimming due to algae.  The Ford was pretty low given that it’s midwinter, and drought is visible on the land beneath a veneer of green grass. There were a few signs around Coe’s Ford about the risks from algae blooms. The increasing algae blooms nationally are not just about drought, they are also about land uses that increase pollution in waterways and help algae to grow. Not all algae is toxic but some is and swimming in any algae is not pleasant. Locals tell me that Chamberlain’s Ford is a better swimming spot because it’s not affected by contamination from a tributary called Silverstream that impacts on Coe’s Ford. The condition of a river is the sum of its numerous tributaries and how healthy they are.

Catherine Delahunty at the Selwyn River
Catherine Delahunty at the Selwyn River

We then drove across the plains towards the hills. This area used to be forestry and sheep farming, and while some sheep farming remains, much of the land has been converted to dairying, a much more intensive and polluting land use. The river looked healthy enough but it was a different story up at White Cliffs near Glentunnel and Coalgate. Mojo used to live in this community and was part of the campaign to stop some dam proposals in the early 2000s. They saved this picturesque landscape and some much-loved local rivers from these developments.

Down at the river at Whitecliffs whaea Makere Chapman from Waitaha gave a mihi to her river and told us how it was not swimmable last summer. She described the iconic camping ground at White Cliffs being more or less empty. I asked if this was drought-related but over tea and gingernuts by the wood range the whanau talked about stock being able to wander into rivers because their paddocks are unfenced, and heavy use of fertilisers adding to the problems. As they said farmers work very hard and need support to protect waterways in hill country as well as on the plains, and we totally agree.

Later on we met with the Selwyn/Waihora Zone Committee plus Environment Canterbury (ECan) staff who are working on water issues. We do have differing assumptions about the solutions to the problems the lake and rivers are having in the district, but everyone agrees that nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) discharges from farms into waterways must be reduced. They are relying on engineering solutions and taking the alpine water that the Central Plains Water irrigation scheme will be using as the pragmatic way to restore aquifers and water quality. We think stronger clear rules about nutrients and no more dairy conversions are necessary policies. The Zone Committee see a lot of the nitrate pollution as historical, but its hard to see how encouraging more intensification through irrigation schemes will help turn the tap of pollution off. ECan are relying on farmers ensuring nutrients reduction targets are met, with ECan auditing those farmers’ assessment, but as yet there are no auditors. They want communities to engage but as in Wairarapa, these committees are not always seen as truly representative of environmental concerns as well as development interests, and ECan is also seen as undemocratic and biased by some clean water advocates in the region who have been contacting me.

Last meeting of the day was with Fish and Game staff who are passionate about the rivers in a region that has seen huge land use changes and big impacts on fish. They are working with farmers in biodiversity issues and also closing rivers to fishing when necessary due to water quality issues.

This was a very interesting day at the front line of water issues, there are multiple layers and dimensions to the debates, but I still have Mike Glover’s words ringing in my head, from our AGM, when he said his daughter had never been able to swim in the Selwyn and she is 10 years old. On August 30 we are holding a public meeting at Lincoln Events Centre to talk about Green policy and listen to community views and solutions for a swimmable river. It should be a lively night.

Waikirikiri/Selwyn River Public Meeting

Join Green MP Catherine Delahunty for a public meeting to discuss the future of Waikirikiri/Selwyn River and our solutions for making our rivers swimmable. Join the Facebook event here.

Let's make the Waikirikiri Selwyn River swimmable again