The nationwide swimmable rivers tour went west this week to the Taranaki community of Waitara. Waitara was once a densely populated food gathering area with magnificent coastal reefs of kaimoana and a stony-bottomed tidal river full of fish.
We learned some of the history as we travelled up river in a small fishing boat and mana whenua pointed out sites of pā and kāinga and described the changes to the river since they were young. The green brown water was thick with sediment after rain and it was hard to imagine a clean stony riverbed being visible. We also learned about an old landfill that was built on an urupa next to the river and observed the many storm water pipes discharging into the water.
These stories were expanded on at the public meeting we hosted where locals described swimming as children in freezing works effluent, turds and lumps of fat. Then came the new industrial waste from the Methanix plant and other activities. The big innovation was a marine outfall which piped waste went out on the tide onto the reef (which the hapū describe as more or less dead now) and washed back up the river with the incoming tide. Waitara is a tidal river and the salt water travels at least 7 kms inland.
These days that raw pollution is largely gone but there are different cumulative impacts and threats. The upper catchment is intensive dairy country with sediment, diffuse nitrogen and phosphorus entering the river via many tributaries. The area is also dotted with oil and gas wells, including fracking wells and questions must be asked about the impact on groundwater of numerous fracking chemicals and of landfarmed waste material on waterways. The lower river also experiences the backwash from the marine outfall which now consists of treated industrial waste from 13 users and the raw sewage overflows from several local communities after big rain events. The river water is also extracted for industry which is a concern to some locals.
All these issues were discussed at our lively public meeting in Waitara where about 70 people engaged with myself and a panel of speakers.
We were welcomed by Rob Taylor of the Friends of Waitara, whose father Aila Taylor famously led the fight against pollution in the bad old days. Local historian Ray Wetenbach painted a vivid picture of the river’s deterioration in the context of colonisation and the way various “improvements” have altered and devastated it as a food source and heart of the Waitara hapū. Emily Bailey from Parihaka spoke about her rōpū who are working with tamariki in the region teaching them about their rivers, the history and the ecology and teaching them to test the water.
I presented the Green Party big picture policies for swimmable rivers and facilitated a discussion with the audience about the Waitara River as well as other rivers in Taranaki and the solutions for the big challenges they face. People were keen to use the local government elections to improve the way the water issues are dealt with by the Regional Council in particular. A great deal of knowledge and experience was shared on the current issues affecting water in the region. I met a paddle boarder who trained on the river except she said sometimes it was just too dirty. We heard from with Climate Justice Taranaki members who helped us join the dots between water quality and the fossil fuel industry and big agriculture.
I urged the audience to participate in the local hands-on effort for clean rivers and support the Friends of Waitara River who have been standing strong in the face of the Taranaki Regional Council demanding costs from three individuals in the group of $25,000 for their efforts. I also explained to them that in order to achieve swimmable rivers, let alone safe kai gathering and drinkable water again one day, we have to change the Government!
Waitara was inspiring for the tenacity of the people, the passion of the mana whenua, the commitment to change. As well as the river events we also met with outgoing Mayor of New Plymouth Andrew Judd to talk about river pollution as a Te Tiriti issue and the need for Pākehā to step up and learn about Te Tiriti issues in Taranaki. We wish him luck in his next life and wish more Mayors were brave enough to use their office to speak out!
It was a great day of sharing and learning with my colleague Jack McDonald who is Te Ātiawa and Taranaki Iwi, and the people of Waitara, if they can keep working for their river, so must we!