Christchurch's Avon River - a story of 'shameful neglect'

More than $100m is being spent on the Avon River Precinct in the central city.
John Kirk-Anderson

More than $100m is being spent on the Avon River Precinct in the central city.

"Te Papa Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct will …be a touchstone of central Christchurch's spiritual and aesthetic identity."

Fine and admirable words from the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) with $114 million to make it happen.

But this is in danger of becoming a fancy shop window with nothing behind the façade.  

Evan Smith calls for 1% of the Avon River Precinct budget to be spent on neglected river banks east of Fitzgerald Ave.
John Kirk-Anderson

Evan Smith calls for 1% of the Avon River Precinct budget to be spent on neglected river banks east of Fitzgerald Ave.

If any wayward tourist dares to penetrate the invisible Hadrian's wall that runs the length of Fitzgerald Ave they will find the real story of the Ōtākaro/Avon River as it meanders its way east to the estuary and out to sea.

It is a story of five years of shameful neglect and abuse.

And again according to the CCDU gloss: "Ōtākaro holds great significance for Ngāi Tahu and Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri Rūnanga: the river was their commercial vein, transport route, source of mahinga kai, and the place by which they lived and traded."

But this applies to the whole Ōtākaro, Ōpāwaho (Heathcote River) and Ihutai (estuary) catchments not just 3.2km of a total 47km (which doesn't even include the tributaries).  A token effort that does little to restore the mauri of the rivers beyond the wall.

So we continue to scrub baby and bathwater then when we've finished with them at Fitzgerald Ave flush them over the wall into the cesspit beyond – out of sight, out of mind.

The Ōtākaro/Avon River east of Fitzgerald meanders through the red zone no-mans lands shored up with decaying sandbags and coarse shingle stopbanks.

Rather than a touchstone of spiritual and aesthetic identity these are constant reminders of emergency measures, earthquakes, floods and abandonment, where temporary has become the new permanent.

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All the city's castoff's from windblown demolition waste, stormwater runoff, littering, and illegal dumping frequently ends up in the river where it floats downstream to accumulate along the banks and becomes the playthings of floods and storm surges, to-ing and fro-ing, up and down the lower reaches.

The council used to have booms at the confluence of Dudley Creek that collected the rubbish coming down from the city and this was regularly removed. The booms disappeared after the earthquakes.

As the red zone lands are cleared and fenced, the illegal dumping is increasingly taking place on the unfenced river banks – after all there is no one living over the road to note your plates and report you to the authorities.

But you may argue, there is no point in spending money on the stop banks as they are likely all going to have to be moved once the long term future use of the red zone lands is decided.

However, public consultation, design and consenting processes will mean that we are unlikely to see anything happen on the ground in the red zone for another 3-4 years.  There needs to be some attempt to restore at least some amenity value to the riverside in the interim.

And there are some riverside works that can no longer be postponed or deprioritised, that have become very urgent.

Prior to the earthquakes Christchurch City Council spent considerable sums on riverside maintenance – particularly in the removal of invasive exotic plants.  

Iris pseudacorus, yellow flag iris, out-competes riparian plants that support inanga (whitebait) spawning and there is evidence that the Avon-Heathcote catchment is a very significant river system for this in Canterbury.

Since the earthquakes this work has been deprioritised and the pest species has now infested large tracts of the lower reaches of both rivers.

If left much longer when it comes time to return some of the red zone to naturally restored wetland and flood plain, all we will achieve is a giant sea of yellow as the iris takes over.

And you can add to the yellow with the amount of exotic broom and gorse now infesting the river banks.  Exotic lupins and gunnera are also invading fast.

Even if just 1% of the Te Papa Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct budget was redirected to initiate a blitz on the river banks east of Fitzgerald Ave, it would go a long way to giving us a chance to save a situation fast getting out of control.

Community volunteers are keen to assist with this work but there is need of professional expertise and equipment to do the job well.

If Te Papa Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct is to be sustainable and fulfil the hype, it must be catchment-wide.  That can only start by urgently re-directing some of the budget to a blitz on the lower catchments.


A community river clean-up day is planned for both the Ōtākaro and Ōpāwaho on Saturday, May 7, 2016, if your local community group would like to adopt part of one of the rivers to participate please contact or .

Evan Smith, Co-Chair, Avon-Ōtākaro Network and Programme Manager, Eastern Vision

 - The Press


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