Friday, July 1, 2022

River restoration starting to flow

The Manawatū River Leaders’ Forum recently won the supreme award at the 2021 Cawthron New Zealand River Awards for the catchment that has made the most progress towards improved river health. Colin Williscroft reports.

Manawatū River Leaders’ Forum co chairs Danielle Harris and Rachel Keedwell with the Cawthron NZ River Awards 2021 supreme award.

The Manawatū River Leaders’ Forum recently won the supreme award at the 2021 Cawthron New Zealand River Awards for the catchment that has made the most progress towards improved river health. Colin Williscroft reports.

In a little over a decade, the Manawatū River has gone from being identified through Cawthron Institute research as one of the most polluted in the western world to that same organisation now celebrating the work being done to clean it up.

The Manawatū River Leaders’ Forum was established in 2010 in response to freshwater health problems facing the catchment.

The previous year Cawthron research showed the river topped a pollution measurement taken on 300 rivers across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand for all the wrong reasons.

When the forum was established stakeholder groups committed to the Manawatū River Leaders’ Accord, which established a collective goal of restoring the river’s health and contributions that could be made to achieve it.

Lead judge for this year’s NZ River Awards supreme award category, Cawthron senior scientist Jim Sinner, says the accord entry stood out for its strong sense of purpose and direction.

“The accord’s objectives and key actions were established and clearly articulated in the Manawatū River Leaders’ Forum’s 2011 Action Plan for improving the health of Manawatū,” Sinner said.

“A decade later, they’re onto the delivery of their second action plan and can clearly demonstrate progress against their original objectives, with active and regular review processes in place.”

The judges commended the accord for working to include a wide range of stakeholders across the community, government and industry, and for building strong relationships with iwi and hapū groups, many of which are integral members of the accord.

Forum co-chair and Tanenuiarangi Manawatū Incorporated chief executive Danielle Harris says the award recognises not only interventions in the river but the collective mahi undertaken on the ground.

“When the accord was signed in 2010, not all partners agreed on what needed to be done to help improve the Manawatū River,” Harris said.

“As a result, one of the biggest challenges to begin with was figuring out how we could all work together to achieve our common goal, which was to improve the health and mana of the awa.

“(The) award recognises the significant body of work undertaken by accord partners, such as iwi and hapū, local government, environmental groups, community groups, industry and landowners, over the past decade.”

Harris says the majority of farmers and the wider rural community have bought into the form’s work, although there will always be some who won’t see it as significant.

“But I think the likes of Fonterra, Federated Farmers and (individual) farmers are really on board,” she said.

“A lot of their great work goes unseen and unpraised, in terms of fencing to keep their stock out of the river and farming practices to reduce unnecessary discharge into the river.

“In particular, the new generation coming through is a lot more environmentally aware.

“We are now a whole-of-catchment community working towards a shared vision – kei te ora te wai, kei te ora te whenua, kei te ora te tangata – if the water is healthy, the land and the people are nourished.”

Fellow forum co-chair and Horizons Regional Council chair Rachel Keedwell says changes to freshwater regulations are helping, with an increasing number of landowners understanding that fencing off waterways and riparian planting are practices that are going to be expected in the future.

Keedwell says Horizons’ programmes in those areas are oversubscribed, which illustrates the level of buy-in by farmers.

“We’re full this year and next year as well, so that shows the amount of interest that’s out there, but better than that is you’ve got people willingly getting on board and seeing the value in doing this, not doing it just because they’re being pushed but doing it because they can see the benefit that they can get out of it,” Keedwell said.

She says landholders Penelope and Blair Drysdale, who farm at the source of the river near Norsewood, are a good illustration of farmers working with their community to achieve common goals.

“The Drysdales are an example of a partnership that really works because you’ve got all the different levels there, you’ve got a really willing landholder, they have genuine engagement with the local iwi (through the Te Kāuru Hapū Collective), then you have other community members coming in, helping provide the labour to make it work because they’ve been putting thousands of plants into the ground,” she said.

“From a farming perspective, I think it shows some great indicatives as to how we can do this differently,” she said.

“I’d love for more people to see what they do,” Keedwell says. 

“It’s not necessarily possible on every farm but there’s certainly aspects of what they are doing that could be applied across every farm.”

Although the recognition of receiving the award is welcome, Harris and Keedwell say there is still plenty of work to be done yet.

“There’s a long, long way to go,” Harris said.

“It’s going to take two or three generations to really restore the river back to its rightful significance in terms of its mauri.

“There’s work still to be done to get things like wastewater and other discharges out of the river, so I see it as a long, long game.”

Keedwell says it’s important to remember that the award is for the most improved, not the best river or catchment.

“It recognises the fact that it’s a journey, it took a long time (for the river) to get into the state that it’s in and there are multiple factors contributing to the decline in water quality, so there’s not one simple solution to fix it,” she said.

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