Christchurch's ailing Avon River among the country's most polluted

A rowing team at Kerrs Reach on the Avon River with a lot of debris in the water.
KIRK HARGREAVES

A rowing team at Kerrs Reach on the Avon River with a lot of debris in the water.

Calls are mounting for Christchurch's "disgraceful" Avon River — amongst the most polluted in the country — to be brought back to life after years of "shameful neglect".

Following the quakes, broken infrastructure meant billions of litres of wastewater had been discharged into the river, infusing it with high levels of bacteria.

The extent of the contamination places it among the country's worst rivers. Data shows it falls in the top 25 per cent of rivers nationwide for levels of E coli (fecal contamination), all forms of nitrogen, and dissolved reactive phosphorous.

The Avon River as seen from the pedestrian bridge into the Botanic Gardens opposite Lake Victoria in Hagley Park. ...
KIRK HARGREAVES

The Avon River as seen from the pedestrian bridge into the Botanic Gardens opposite Lake Victoria in Hagley Park. Despite the beauty, the river is one of Canterbury's most polluted.

The river has been described as the victim of "shameful neglect and abuse" by Avon-Otakaro Network co-chair Evan Smith, who said if even a small part of the $114 million budget for the Avon River Precinct went towards the river itself, it would make a difference.

Environment Canterbury has rated the river's condition as "very poor" each year since at least 2010, and has urged people not to swim or whitebait in it.

Eastern ward councillor Glenn Livingstone said more money from the central city's Avon River Precinct development should have been spent on the river's health.

The Avon River has a bleak future, but a community effort could turn it around.
DEAN KOZANIC/FAIRFAX NZ

The Avon River has a bleak future, but a community effort could turn it around.

"While an emphasis has gone on that precinct, and I can see why, there are fundamental things that need attending to: basically, the overall state of the river.

"[The river] is in a disgraceful condition. It's full of a lot of rubbish, and that's aside from the water quality itself."

He believed the river could be brought back to a reasonable state, but only through "constant work" from both the community and the Christchurch City Council.

"The river belongs to us all, and it's arguably our greatest asset. It's about arresting people's attention over the need for stewardship of the river."

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Baden Ewart, director of the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU), said work had already been done on the river as part of the precinct, and its health was a high priority.

"A revitalised Avon River in the central city was one of the main themes that emerged from the 'Share an Idea' campaign, as the community felt the river had been ignored. This theme was incorporated into the development of the Avon River Precinct."

Since the quakes, the CCDU had removed 10,000 tonnes of liquefaction, rescued or rehomed 1500 fish, and planted almost 10,000 plants along the riverbanks.

"Providing a clean, healthy and accessible river in the central city is an on-going priority for the CCDU," he said.

Such goals could take considerable time, said Bryan Jenkins, professor of strategic water management at the University of Canterbury.

Even once broken infrastructure was repaired, it would not address the dire state of the river.

"You certainly wouldn't want to swim in it, but even boating is a high risk health activity in relation to the Avon River," he said.

Authorities should reconsider the way they managed sewage overflows, and could use red-zoned land to store run-off that would otherwise go in the river, he said.

Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Alistair Humphrey previously called the Avon an "open sewer," and warned of the health risks contained in its murky waters.

He was an optimist though, saying there was hope for the Avon.

"Will we as a community accept a constantly contaminated river? Are we as a community going to accept our river will never meet a recreational water standard, or do we want to push harder for a cleaner river?" he said.

"I think we can have a cleaner river, but it's not just down to local government – we need to think about what we're doing as individuals."

People should look at minimising the run-off they produced, clean up after their animals, and be wary about feeding exotic species such as ducks, as they contributed to the river's state.

"If we were to get it to a consistent recreational water quality, that would be a really amazing achievement . . . I think we could do that if we pulled together as a community."

 - Stuff

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