No life without flow

RIVER LIFE: A pipe taking waste to the island as part of the Manawatu River loop at Foxton.
RIVER LIFE: A pipe taking waste to the island as part of the Manawatu River loop at Foxton.

A dedicated group of volunteers have a plan to revitalise Foxton, but first need to bring life back to the Manawatu River Loop. Save Our River Trust takes Mathew Grocott on a boat trip. 

This isn't water.

Water's not black, it's not putrid, it's not devoid of life.

HELPING HAND: Save Our River Trust (Sort) member Michael Feyen next to the Foxton river loop.
HELPING HAND: Save Our River Trust (Sort) member Michael Feyen next to the Foxton river loop.

Whatever this is, this substance we're cutting through deep inside the Manawatu River Loop, it's not water.

Having left Foxton only a few minutes earlier, we've chugged past paddocks, the old rubbish dump, remnants of the flax trade and a pipe to Foxton's wastewater treatment plant.

We're near the silted up end of the Manawatu River Loop at Foxton. There's not a bird to be seen; if there's any aquatic life, it's not visible in the inky, black, fetid, river.

According to our guides, Save Our River Trust (Sort) members Michael Feyen and Dahlson Halidone, there is no life here. Nor is there a life for Foxton while the river behind their town, the original course of the Manawatu River, has no flow.

At present water only comes into the loop from one end, the sea. The deposits at the other end don't get washed out to sea.

Sort has a plan to reopen this end of the loop, to return flow to the river, and to return life to Foxton.

‘No life without flow' is their motto. It's not too different from the mission statement of the Manawatu River Leaders' Accord: "If the water is healthy, the land and the people are nourished."

The water behind Foxton is not healthy, and the town's people are not nourished.

Signs reading "amber alert" dot the river bank, warning swimmers of the risk of entering the E coli-laced waterway.

But it wasn't always like this.

"People use to swim here, they used to jump off the wharf," says Feyen. The wharves are gone, a chunk of concrete, metres back from the current river bank, marks where one stood. "They used to catch whitebait and flounder here. It's all gone within a generation."

Indeed Foxton is touted as the birthplace of the Manawatu. The wharves here were once busy with ships, goods would come in while flax and other locally made products were taken out.

The last ship left Foxton in 1941, and then everything changed.

The loop has been a passage to nowhere since 1943 when the Ministry of Works diverted the Manawatu River in a botched attempt at building a flood spillway known as the Whirokino Cut.

The work was meant to control floods in the Manawatu River, but the cut suddenly became the dominant route of the river. The old path was practically cut off and any flow in the loop was what was generated by tides from the sea.

The upstream end of the loop silted up over time. As a result there is no flow to the water up there and anything that is carried in on the tide or washed off the surrounding land has nowhere to go.

Here the water is black, the banks a mess of weeds, namely glyceria, which floats on the water's surface.

It's easy to see the former banks of the river and how wide the waterway through here once was. We're lucky to be out on the day after a king tide, when the water in the loop is quite high. It allows us to get further up the loop than normal.

Sort has dredged parts of the river in recent years; Feyen says what they found was not promising. "When we dredged the river there was not a single living organism in the water."

As we putter back towards Foxton it's easy to see the tourism potential in such a waterway, if the loop were to be reopened. At points on the loop the de Molen Windmill in Foxton is tall and picturesque, as if it is the prow of a ship in the distance.

As we get further towards the downstream end, where water still flows in and out with the tides, the quality of the water improves. If brown water can be considered an improvement. There is some bird life, a few ducks brave the water.

The work Sort has put in to protecting the loop is also evident. Hundreds of recently planted flax bushes line the river's edge and new fences prevent cows from getting to the waterway.

These measures are only in place around part of the loop but the potential is clear. It's also clear there are places where cows can get right down to the water's edge.

Eventually, there is a point where the water in the loop turns blue, where the source is predominantly from the sea and not from the surrounding land.

Further out the loop passes the Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, where an array of avian species live in and around the Manawatu Estuary.

Feyen says that if the loop were to reopen, and the movement of water cleared the faeces, the weed and the smell, then myriad tourism opportunities would open up for Foxton.

The town would be on the banks of a complete circuit of water, with potential for charted trips, water sports such as kayaking and recreation.

"Tourism is the key for Foxton and Foxton Beach, tourism is our answer," Feyen says.

At present the town is a shadow of its past. As Foxton Community Board chairwoman Janine Smart put it to a Horizons Regional Council meeting this month, the loop is Foxton's backyard, and no-one wants a backyard like Foxton has now.

However Sort members claim there is pessimism from some staff and politicians at Horizons Regional Council about what could realistically be achieved.

A report produced in 2012 put the cost of successfully reopening the loop at millions of dollars, much of that going towards the cost of a weir in the Manawatu River.

However, SORT members believe a less ambitious project could be done much more cheaply.

What they want is for just some of the river to be allowed to come through. They are proposing a channel be dug, upstream from the silted-up entrance to the loop, across Horizons-owned land at the end of the Moutoa spillway.

It will need maintenance to be kept open, Sort member Tony Murdoch says, but Sort has the knowledge and access to the equipment to keep it open.

Murdoch says the loop's opening was maintained from 1944 until 1987 by the then Manawatu Catchment Board. This ensured a healthy flow of water around the loop and the opportunity for the likes of Murdoch and Halidone to fish behind Foxton in the good old days.

Since 1987 the loop has not been maintained, silt has built up and in recent years the flow from the upstream end has closed.

With a rejuvenated loop, the town would be more promising, not only to tourists but to business owners and investors, Smart says. Horowhenua District Council is planning a new community centre called Te Awahou near the river. The facility will include a museum dedicated to New Zealand's Dutch heritage.

There are also ecological benefits. Reopening the loop would open up more habitat for freshwater species. The loop itself is in close proximity to the largest whitebait spawning site in the country at Whirikino.

Feyen says the reopening of the loop is something everyone in Foxton wants, but it now needs the political clout to make it happen.

But how can this become reality?

Reopening the loop will require a resource consent or a resolution from Horizons. Murdoch says the group has been working on the consent for two years; he has the pile of documents to prove it.

The council has voted to be part of a working party to look at reopening the loop. Sort and the Foxton community are on board and the Horowhenua District Council will be invited.

Feyen thinks the river can repair itself, if Sort gets approval for its plans. It just needs some flow, some life.

When you get on the water, the problems with the loop are plain to see, but so is the potential.

Manawatu Standard