'Abuse' killing Opihi - expert

A watershed ecologist says farming and industrial practices near the Opihi River have led to the "death by a thousand cuts" of the river, and that new ways must be explored to restore it.

Haikai Tane, director of the Twizel-based Watershed Systems research centre, spoke at a meeting in Timaru last night marking the first year of the Opihi Catchment Environmental Protection Society. He told the audience of about 40 that the poor state of the Opihi did not happened overnight.

"The growth of phormidium is nature's warning," he said.

"It is its response to the abuse of our systems. We have dying rivers, and the pattern is especially conspicuous in the South Island. What we are seeing now is the result of years of poor farming practices and land degradation. It is not the fault of one group, but rather the death by a thousand cuts."

People and animals should avoid the river near the Saleyards bridge at Pleasant Point due to high levels of the toxic algal bloom in the waters. Professor Tane said the Opihi was a "very sick" river that suffered from a long history of degradation and mismanagement.

"It is time to get back to basics. Once you get the watersheds healthy, then the health of the river will follow. Observe natural systems, and let nature take over."

Prof Tane said the approaches such as the Canterbury water management strategy, would not necessarily help solve the issue, particularly as the zone committees' structures and boundaries were "irregular".

"No watershed is fixed through writing reports. If you want something to happen, you have to do it yourself. Get schools to understand the importance of it, let them help with the monitoring and restoration. Get a team and do something," he said.

Prof Tane said effluent waste had to be managed in a way that was actually of beneficial use, while no "hard hoof" animals should be allowed to occupy a wetland or waterways systems. The most prevalent farming systems used in New Zealand were "outdated", he said.

"We have a right to clean, fresh water. Let's choose the path that gives our children and grandchildren that future," he said.

At the close of his talk, several people expressed a desire to help or assist with the society, which was established last year in response to growing concern about the state of the local rivers.

Temuka pharmacist Alan Campbell pointed to some of the society's achievements over the past year, including restoration projects in the catchment, and consultation with groups such as Environment Canterbury and Opuha Water to find a workable solution.

"But this is a serious issue. Children can get very sick from coming into contact with [phormidium]. I know of one gentleman who spent more than $400 on veterinarian fees to save his dog. We are all here to solve this problem," he said.

The Timaru Herald