Swimmable Rivers tour visits the Wairua River

On the same day at the Ministry for the Environment reported the grim state of our rivers, lakes and streams, we were out on the Wairua River in Northland seeing the state of our water first hand. We were lucky river champion from Te Uriroroi Millan Ruka could take us out on the river so we could see how the river was faring. We also had the opportunity to meet with mana whenua and others who are working on water quality improvement in the region.

The morning was beautiful and clear, but the river, sadly, was not.

We saw the contrast between the farms where farmers had diligently fenced animals so that they can’t get into the water, and the unfenced with fresh cow shit on the muddied river bank. We saw improvements that Millan has been encouraging and demanding through his rigorous monitoring and reporting. It is not easy monitoring many smaller lowland rivers and tributaries because the access is not maintained for public use and the land around it is usually privately-owned. I learned from Millan that if we want people to love and protect our rivers they have to be able to access them and they need to be healthy.

We took a sample from an effluent pipe discharging directly into the river. There has to be a consent which is monitored once a year and the theory is that the levels of pollution 20 metres below the point of discharge tells you how safe the water is. I am going to compare our test results with previous data and see if this effluent is well managed, or if the theory that “dilution is the solution to pollution” is not working.

We also met with the Northland Regional Council staff for a lively discussion on how Northland rivers are not as bad as other places and how they have to prioritise the monitoring budget. The reliance on non-regulatory means of making farming practice change is always a worry. The Wairua River was awash with sediment which smothers creatures and clogs up ecosystems, and its tributaries are not in great shape. This is caused by soil erosion from both farming and forestry. Upstream of the Wairua, the Mangakahia River is clogged with debris from plantation forests. All this sediment eventually winds up in the Kaipara Harbour, where it further clogs snapper breeding grounds and wreaks havoc on the ecosystems that depend on healthy water.

I also met with Hona Edwards, Chair of Ngā Kaitiaki o Waimāori, a network of hapū doing great collective work on tuna, water quality improvement and many other aspects of kaitiakitanga. Hona said that the human resources and passion of the younger generation galvinised in a haputanga model, not an imposed unnatural structure, can benefit the environment for the whole community.
At the public meeting that evening, Millan showed us his pictures of rivers that have been improved by campaigning and how obstacles like a hydro dam can mean death to native species. Conversely, he showed us how with creativity and collaboration we can help them thrive. The audience conversation that followed shows an active community determined to address water issues such as toxic mining threats, dredging, submitting on water planning, the water bottling debacle at nearby Poroti Springs and more.

We have some great Green Party candidates in the north who are engaged with communities and we have national solutions to back the leadership of river champions like Millan Ruka. Kia kaha Te Tai Tokerau, inspiring to be with you, keep fighting for clean water!