Friends' deep interest in river

POPULAR PLACE: Ali, Ami and Tom Kennedy have a swimming hole at the bottom of their garden. It's fuelled their work on setting up Friends of the Maitai to improve and maintain the river's health.
POPULAR PLACE: Ali, Ami and Tom Kennedy have a swimming hole at the bottom of their garden. It's fuelled their work on setting up Friends of the Maitai to improve and maintain the river's health.

A colourful blackboard on the Nile St footpath outside the Kennedys' place is a good indication of how Friends of the Maitai operates.

The new group, formed toward the end of last year, wasn't set up to be a strident critic of the Nelson City Council, the forestry industry or anyone else who might be blamed for the river's decline in water quality and degraded habitat for living things.

Tom, Ali, daughter Ami and son Patrick moved to their now impressively productive quarter-acre section 27 years ago. Their 1930s bungalow has Nile St for its frontage and a popular Maitai swimming hole at the bottom of the garden.

Their interest in the river runs deep, more so because Mr Kennedy is a recently retired Tasman District Council hydrologist and Ami, a devoted organic gardener, completed a workshop on community-led development after moving back to Nelson last year.

That was the spur to establish the group, and instead of firing out a barrage of emails they also use the blackboard to publicise Maitai-related activities: a forthcoming lecture on cyanobacteria, a riverside picnic.

There were more than 30 people at their most recent meeting, the third, but they haven't set up a formal structure, with Ami acting as the main spokeswoman.

They are working on a calendar of events and planning to link in with the Waimaori streamcare programme, a local authority, Department of Conservation and iwi-supported initiative that teaches the monitoring of local streams and advocates practical help such as plantings to protect riverbanks and enhance habitat.

It's a welcome development for Waimaori leader Mel McColgan, who says the programme gives lay people the skills and understanding to tell if there's a problem in waterways.

"In all our time of trying to get volunteer groups set up I haven't seen anything be as successful, and such a keen group of well-qualified people." .

She says the Maitai isn't as badly degraded as some of the region's streams, but it provides the city's drinking water, is central to recreation for residents and visitors, and of great importance to Nelson's iwi.

"Most tangata whenua of this area would whakapapa to the Maitai as having been the most valued and esteemed resource, freshwater wise - and I wouldn't be taking my daughter up there for a swim anytime soon."

The Friends have got off to a good start but "it's still in the baking phase", says Ms Kennedy. "There's various opinions on whether we need a formal structure or not, or whether we just work on projects in small groups, which is what I'm quite keen for."

She said she'd always been interested in waterways and their care, having seen eels die in the bottom of the creeks near the small country town in Canterbury the family lived in before Nelson, an experience she remembers as "devastating".

"I've always had a passion for it and that comes through from my parents as well, with their interest in the environment and passion for it."

Mr Kennedy's 12 years with the TDC involved working on rivers, rain and groundwater.

"The actual river care thing, the Friends of the Maitai, has been Ami's inspiration," he says.

The group is initially focusing on the Nile St-Cleveland Tce community of people living beside the river or overlooking it, aiming to start off in the Kennedys' neighbourhood and grow from there.

That's where the blackboard fits in - an old-fashioned way to connect with neighbours and passers-by.

But they also have an email list of more than 50 and Mr Kennedy says although it will probably be a small core who are closely involved, "I have the feeling that if we want to do a planting, say, and we put an email out, we'll get 30 or 40 people".

"It's a loose structure and we want to keep it like that."

They are also keen on being part of a forum of all interested parties that could result in an accord.

That's happened in the Manawatu, he says, with forestry companies, farmers, industry and councils all buying in and sitting down to work out a waterway plan they can all accept.

Ms Kennedy says that also connects with sharing information about what's being done by the council, Fish & Game, the Cawthron Institute and others "so when we're talking to people about the river, we know more. That's a really big part of it".

Some of their concerns are around the staining and lack of oxygen in water from the Maitai Reservoir being fed into the river, the increase in cyanobacteria which, Mr Kennedy says, is an indicator that the water temperature and silt levels are probably too high, the effects of clear-felling exotic forest and the way farm stock is handled in the valley.

"There's a lot of issues. It's not just one bogeyman.

"We need to get everyone together, that's where I'm coming from," Mr Kennedy says.

Ms Kennedy also questions the controls on forestry companies and the level of monitoring applied to their activities.

"There are lots of ‘no public access' signs. Who's monitoring it? Who says that they're doing their best practice, as they supposedly do?"

Her father says he was "a bit affected" by what he saw as a hydrologist across the TDC's area.

"In the 12 years that I've been there the deterioration in rivers is mind-boggling, in particular the silt buildup.

"Whereas the Motueka [River] was just individual clean boulders, now it's just covered with silt." He believes there's a connection between that and the degradation of Tasman Bay, where the scallop fishery has collapsed.

"It's not necessarily the trees, it's quite often the roading that they're putting in, the slips that are caused."

He's also concerned about government moves to reclassify many rivers to recognise their polluted status.

"That's really scary when you think that only 20 years ago you could drink out of most rivers in New Zealand."

Ms Kennedy, whose background is in resource studies, permaculture and primary school teaching with an environmental education focus, says the city council has so far been co-operative with the Friends, with some of the group wanting to offer practical help cleaning up rubbish and assisting with monitoring.

She says the Maitai is part of Nelson's commons.

"Who has responsibility? We often say it's the council, but it's all of our responsibility to the water. We can't departmentalise it off - it's easy to, but we're all responsible for it. How do we change our mindset?"

A part of the idea was also to bring the community closer together and so far that has been working spectacularly well, with the blackboard bringing a lot of interaction and an enthusiastic response to the meetings.

"It's about getting to know the neighbours, and that's about resilience for future events, if there's going to be any. It might be the river this decade, something else the next decade," she says.

Her father chimes in: "We've met more people in the Cleveland area in the last three months than in 27 years."

❏ This is the second in a series looking at issues surrounding water quality in the Maitai River, how they connect to wider problems and what can be done.

The Nelson Mail