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It affects 'all of us' when the awa is unwell . . .

Historians, scientists, human rights advocates, iwi, athletes and farmers are connected by a river that runs from headwaters north-east of Gisborne down to the city. But the river is unwell, sometimes savaged by slash and other times choked by sedimentation. It has prompted a move to restore the lifeline to its former state and a call to let the river speak. Alice Angeloni reports.

Jill Chrisp moved into a house built by her father on the banks of the Waimatā River when she was five-years-old.

Children from all over Kaiti came to revel in the river playground. They played in the water, slid in the mud, paddled to the island nearby, bundled fresh oranges down their togs and swam back to feast in the sun.

After 30 years living away from Gisborne, social scientist Dr Chrisp returned to the Waimatā.

On a recent early autumn evening she wandered down the steep, grassy slope of her backyard to where the river runs below.

She slid her kayak on to the water and paddled downstream, past suburban Gisborne homes and small jetties that jut over the water's edge.

Chrisp used to love swimming in the river, and while she still does, she learned from an ear infection traced back to the river that it is too dirty to dip her head beneath the surface.

“It impacts all of us when it's unwell,” she said of the awa.

Not long ago, in a spot where children still swim, Chrisp's partner Karen Johansen fished out two kidney dialysis bags from the mud. One was still full of body fluids, a doctor later told her.

Johansen, who is a Rongowhakaata wāhine, former principal of Gisborne Girls' High School and New Zealand's former Indigenous Rights Commissioner, took the bags to the hospital and was met by gloved, masked medics who sent them to Auckland to be disposed of.

She was horrified.

“If water is life, then this is a lifeline,” Johansen said.

“If our lifeline is unwell, how can we be well? As human beings, we are part of that ecosystem.

“Because as humans we have been habitually irresponsible in our disrespect for our waterways, we now have an enormous responsibility to restore these waterways, and in this case the Waimatā, before it's too late.”

The pair are members of the Waimatā Catchment Group which represents 23,600-hectares of land from headwaters in the hills north-east of Gisborne down to the city.

Two years in action and the group has secured $1.6 million in central government funding over the next five years and has 35 landowners already on board.

Last month, they urged Gisborne District Council, which owns park and reserve land perched on the banks of the Waimatā, to join them.

But Lois Easton, who is the administrator of the Waimatā Restoration Project, warned councillors that this wouldn't be “a passive thing”.

“We'll be on your case to do the same as every other landowner in the catchment,” she said at a council meeting on March 18.

Council chief of strategy and science Jo Noble said they were working through practical ways to support the project.

This could mean staff attending meetings, providing expertise, regular communication with the group about council work in the catchment and supporting external funding applications.

The council would start freshwater planning for the Waimatā catchment later this year and expected to be working closely with the group, she said.

Busiest recreational river in Tairawhiti

Dr Daniel Hikuroa of Auckland University also presented at the meeting, announcing the start of a three-year research project called Let the River Speak.

They were looking to weave the social-cultural elements, people's relationships with the river, alongside the biophysical.

“What we're actually trying to say is, we should listen to what the river is saying,” he said at the meeting.

When it floods, that's the river saying it is constricted, when slash comes down in heavy rain, it means there are forestry practices that should be reconsidered, he said.

“If we can understand how the river behaves, if we can understand by our actions or our inactions the impact it's having on the health of the river, and the health of the people who interact with the river, then we might be able to start making different and better decisions.”

It follows recent research by University of Auckland Masters student Danielle Cairns into the community's relationship with the Waimatā.

This showed that people's greatest concerns were water quality, erosion and water clarity, Dr Hikuroa said. But what also came out was that the community was inspired by Te Awa Tupua Act, in which the Whanganui River was recognised as a legal person.

“Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au. I am the River and the River is me,” Dr Hikuroa said.

“Those are Māori words but those are sentiments felt by virtually everyone who lives in the catchment. It's about how can we take how people feel and turn it into how people act.”

The Waimatā is the busiest recreational river in Tairāwhiti.

Waka ama paddlers can be seen sporting back and forth, kayakers and rowers glide along its surface. On hot days, children line bridges egging each other to jump.

But at times, the river is savaged by forestry slash, and when it rains, the water runs brown as sedimentation chokes the awa.

High levels of E.coli and eroding banks are also issues, and during heavy rain events, the council can open emergency sewerage valves into the town's rivers, which includes the Waimatā.

As a child, Professor Dame Anne Salmond watched for the splash of mullet and swung off ropes into the Waimatā.

About 20 years ago, Salmond and her husband Jeremy visited the river and bush she had played in as a child and saw a ‘for sale' sign hanging on the fence.

It advertised the land for forestry or grazing, but they had a different idea.

By the end of that weekend, the Salmonds had made an offer for 120 hectares of land, which included a long strip of native bush on the Waimatā.

It marked the start of the Waikereru Ecosanctuary and an epic project to restore bush and rivers in the area.

In 2015, Salmond connected with Dr Hikuroa and together they set up Te Awaroa — a movement to restore 1000 rivers by 2050.

It also led to the Waimatā Restoration Group being kicked off, which, in its first two years, focused on the upper reaches of the catchment.

Nearer to the river's headwaters, about 25 minutes north of Gisborne, is Monowai Station where Laura Watson's (nee Savage) family has been farming for 95 years.

Watson grew up going for walks to the river with her grandmother and playing in the water. Her four-year-old son George now does the same with his Nana.

About four years ago, Watson and her husband moved back to take over the family farm.

“When the idea of a catchment project came up I jumped at it, because we had all these plans that we wanted to do for our property, and we thought that other people within the catchment would be interested in doing things on their farm and learning more about conservation.”

Watson, who is the project manager for the Waimatā Restoration Project, said last year they focused on implementing farm environment plans.

Seventy percent of the hill country farms in the catchment had joined the restoration group, and over the next five years they had funding to fence 30km of the riverbank, and plant 200,000 native trees, along with poplar and willows.

The focus of the project would also shift to the lower reaches of the river, including the health issues posed to swimmers and paddlers.

Salmond said the Waimatā was known as the “river of gold” because many a gold medal had been won among the waka ama paddlers, rowers and kayakers who trained on its water.

But athletes had started to get sick, she said.

“These are world-class athletes, and the river is making them sick. They're getting rashes, sores,” Salmond said.

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, who was last week named New Zealander of the year, is part of the Let the River Speak team who will be coming to study the bugs in the river, Salmond said.

“The feedback from the community about what they want from the river is unanimous. They all want it to be in a thriving state,” she said.

After the group presented to the council last month, Mayor Rehette Stoltz vowed to help “make our rivers sing again”.

It might lead to a change in the project's title, Salmond said.

The council had not received any complaints about people getting sick due to water quality, a spokeswoman said.

The council's recreational water sampling includes three sites around town — the Waimatā at Anzac Park, Turanganui at Gladstone Road and Waikanae Beach at Grey Street.

For Waimatā at Anzac, of 23 water samples taken this summer, 19 or 83 percent were safe to swim, while four — 17 percent — had bacteria levels that were unsafe.

The four unsafe results were related to rainfall events.

Dr Jill Chrisp and Karen Johansen on the Waimata River. Picture by Alice Angeloni
Project manager Laura Watson, with sons George, 4, and Blake, 6 months, at Monowai Station on the Waimata River. Picture by Liam Clayton
Dame Anne Salmond. Picture by Jane Ussher
People who live on the Waimata River feel deeply connected to it, University of Auckland research shows. Picture by Liam Clayton
The restoration group has funding to fence 30km of the river over the next five years. Picture by Liam Clayton

  1. Anne Salmond says:

    At the Moana-nui Symposium in Tūranga in 2019, a group of young local waka ama paddlers gave a brilliant presentation about the need to restore the Waimatā River, with photos of sores and rashes they were getting from paddling in the river. They argued passionately that the river must be restored to a thriving state, for their sakes and those of others who want to row, paddle, swim, fish and play in the Waimatā. Dan Hikuroa and I had the privilege of being present and hearing their call, which helped to inspire the Waimatā restoration project.