Farmers big players in River Story Awards video

Southern farmers are leading the way in river health, with farmers big drivers in projects which are finalists in this year's River Story Award.

Finalists for the competition come from Southland, North Otago and Bay of Plenty.

The project to restore the Lower Mararoa River near Te Anau in Southland began rumbling in the late 1990s, swung into real action in 2005 and was completed in 2015.

Lower Mararoa River restoration project members Ali Timms, Phil Smith and Ken McGraw.
Robyn Edie

Lower Mararoa River restoration project members Ali Timms, Phil Smith and Ken McGraw.

The problem was willows and other pest plants were chocking this formerly beautiful braided river – water quality was deteriorating, swimming, fishing, picnicking and kayaking opportunities were disappearing, as were wildlife habitats.

*$3m Lower Mararoa River restoration complete
*No longer swimmable: A community mourns its lost river 

But it wasn't just the locals who were concerned as farmers were worried about losing valuable land as the river kept spreading. The New Zealand Transport Authority was concerned about the threat to roads and bridges alongside the river, particularly State Highway 94 and Fish & Game could see a valuable fishing river being destroyed.

Meridian Energy, the owner of the Manapouri power station, local councils and Iwi all had an interest in reversing the damage. To convert all these concerns into concerted action required collaboration between about a dozen stakeholders.

By 2005, five years after the first community meeting, the initial action group had pulled together most of the interested parties.

Phil Smith was appointed chairman of the Restoration Working Project and his challenge was to get everyone to work together to restore the river. Thirteen different groups were involved in the working party.

The restoration work involved removing and disposing of crack willows and gorse and broom from the riverbed to allow it to flow within its former natural boundaries, rather than creeping ever wider, swallowing up valuable farmland, and endangering roads and bridges.

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Smith says there was no way they could ignore the problem: "it was something that needed to be done. Not doing anything wasn't an option, it was only going to get worse."

An Opus International Report done in 2005 indicated 350 hectares of farmland could have been lost into the river if nothing was done.

"Ten years on from that we're probably talking something like 150-200ha might have gone down the river."

After all the work the community and organisations put in, the lower Mararoa River now looks like the braided river it originally was. 

Further north, a lot of work is going into the Kakanui catchment in North Otago to improve water quality.

The second River Story finalist is about one farming family in the Waiareka Creek area of the catchment.

The Kingans have accepted their responsibility to future generations for the state of the land they farm and for the waterways that pass through their property.

They are the third generation to farm the land and want to make sure that the move to irrigation and more intensive dairy farming is done on a sustainable basis. The land and the local environment have to be managed so they can benefit many more generations.

Callum and Twyla Kingan recognise they are custodians of their land for a relatively brief time.

Callum's grandfather bought the property in 1953 and he is now the third generation to farm the property.

The Kingans returned to the farm in 2005 and converted and expanded it from a dryland sheep and beef farm to a 340 hectare, 700 cow dairy operation, thanks to the arrival of irrigation in the Waiareka Valley.

The farm shifted up several gears – from a one-family farm to one that now supports six families. Water has transformed the land and its production.

However, it wasn't long before Callum and Twyla recognised that with more intensive farming came some broader responsibilities, including water quality in their local streams.

Monitored water quality in the Waiareka Creek, which drains the catchment their farm lies in, was poor and total nitrogen was declining. In 2010 the Kingans asked the Otago Regional Council to test water quality near the middle of their farm and in a stream as it left their property and the results convinced them to take action.

The tests highlighted the important points that too much water was simply running off the land and valuable nutrients were being washed down the drain.

Callum worked out that if they invested in variable rate irrigation and GPS technology they could solve both problems and more importantly improve the quality of surface water leaving their property.

The cost of the new technology at about $60,000 could be recovered in three to five years and was a no-brainer. Much bigger effluent reservoirs have also helped improve nutrient management.

For the past three years the Kingans have contracted somebody to monitor the quality of water entering and leaving their property. So far the results are heading in the right direction.

The third River Story finalist is the Waitoa River in the Bay of Plenty.

A small group set out to restore the health of the river and have ended up restoring their community. The river flows into the Tauranga estuary – once an abundant larder for local Maori. Today the larder is almost empty.

As far back as the 1970s, local Maori recognised they were losing a valuable source of food. In the decades since they have inspired people into taking action.

Now the whole community is chipping in to fence, plant and protect the river and refill the food basket.  

 - Stuff

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