dirty river water selwyn

Swimmable Rivers tour – Waikirikiri/Selwyn

This week, we had our second stop on our Swimmable Rivers tour, this time in Canterbury at the Waikirikiri/Selwyn River. I had a great day with our two Canterbury MPs Eugenie Sage and Mojo Mathers and our amazing Christchurch staff.

The Waikirikiri/ Selwyn rivers runs from the hills to Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere through the plains. “Run” is a sad exaggeration; in some parts of the river where it’s more of a trickle. We started the day at the river mouth where Ngai Tahu has led some fantastic planting. At Selwyn Huts we met with local Mike Glover who has been calling on the council to clean up the river for years. The river at Selwyn Huts is a weirdly green colour, caused by algae blocking out the light. No one would swim in that part of the river.

Listening to the locals

We had a great meeting with Fish and Game staff and other locals about the long-term challenges for Canterbury rivers that helped me realise that intensive development, including irrigation, is a high country issue as well as a lowland issue. We also attended the “State of the Environment” speech at Lincoln University where Dr Nick Smith did not have a plan to stop river pollution and continued to blame birds for dirty water. He stated that irrigation would save Canterbury’s water and says collaboration had made a huge difference. Sad really. Our own public meeting was so full that people were standing outside in the cold to listen. Our speakers represented many aspects of the Waikirikiri/Selwyn challenges. Some highlights:

  • Craig Pauling (Ngai Tahu) is active in the Te Ara Kakariki Trust that restores biodiversity, and spoke appreciatively of our focus on this lowland river, which once provided so much kai to manawhenua.
  • Scott Pearson from Fish and Game gave a sobering report on the state of the river and the extraordinary collapse in fish numbers.
  • Eugenie explained the Green solutions with great clarity, which was a total contrast to the Government rhetoric we had just heard.
  • Nicky Snoyink, a local tourist guide from the upper river, talked about community values and how Environment Canterbury, the regional council, needs to change.
  • Organic farmer Brian Clearwater from Geraldine gave us very good reasons to support sustainable farming that does not trash the environment and brings in a good family wage.

We had some great questions from the audience about whether the collaboration model is working to protect rivers and it was clear that people were very concerned about the gap between Government rhetoric and their rivers, which are over allocated, polluted and marked with signs about toxic algae. The meeting was also an opportunity to promote local biodiversity activities happening at the river mouth and the local proposal for a hikoi for a swimmable river from Glentunnel to Te Waihora.

The next morning, I went back to to the river with Springston School students who are are planting natives, checking water quality, supporting insect habitat with “weta hotels”, and studying their river. These primary school students, with support from Enviroschools, have an active sense of responsibility for the Chamberlains Ford part of the river and they want it to be swimmable again!


The passion of the local communities needs to be matched by politicians willing to face the degradation in this region and start transforming land uses that will allow wild rivers to heal. For this to happen we will have to change the Government.


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