On a warm summer afternoon, Bill Vant can most likely be found in his kayak, paddling the gentle current of the Waikato River somewhere between the Narrows and Hamilton's Wellington Street Beach.
It's one of the freshwater scientist's favourite parts of the river he has spent years studying. It underlines for him just why Hamiltonians are so lucky.
"There are always people about in boats or swimming at the various beaches – there's no need to drive to Raglan or the Mount. This is at our back door."
His other favourite spot is Huka Falls, near Taupo. Waxing lyrical about its striking power, he cannot help but add that the water quality here is "outstanding".
But as this country's longest river winds its way for more than 400km through farmland, towns, into hydro lakes, over dams and through the middle of a major city on its journey to the ocean, that water quality is as variable as the landscape.
The Waikato River has something of a bad reputation for water quality. But it's one largely built on anecdote and harks back to the days of rudimentary wastewater treatment and direct effluent discharge. Dr Vant insists it is not all bad and, contrary to popular belief, perfectly OK to swim in thanks to the hydro lakes' ability to kill bacteria.
In fact, he says, compared with the state of similar rivers overseas, we should be counting our blessings.
"Quite frankly, sometimes we forget to do that."
But, with a catchment as extensive and diverse as the Waikato, there are problems. Nutrient runoff from farms, silt build-up, bacteria and a decline in native fish species are all threatening the ecology of the river and affecting water quality along its path.
Cleaning it up is now a priority at local and national government level, with responsibility for that embedded in the Waikato River Authority, a statutory body with the aim of restoring and protecting the health and well-being of the river for future generations.
The authority has 10 members, including co-chairmen Tainui leader Tuku Morgan and former National MP John Luxton. It also has a lot of money. Over the next 30 years, $210 million will be available from the Waikato River Clean-Up Trust administered by the authority to fund community projects that will clean up the river. The authority also hopes to create a perpetual fund for long-term projects.
But right now applications are being sought for the first $6 million for clean-up projects. It's an exciting time for the authority, says Mr Luxton, as it begins its job to encourage groups to take responsibility for sections of the river and work towards improving it for everyone. So far, expressions of interest have been strong and reflect the wide range of work needed.
The river catchment is a complex web of lakes, tributaries, streams and wetlands – each with their own fragile ecosystems and management priorities. To aid understanding, scientists have suggested the catchment be thought of as three distinct areas: the main stem of the river upstream of the Karapiro Dam; the Waipa catchment; and below the hydro lakes, which includes Hamilton to the mouth at Port Waikato.
For the first segment, the main issue is farming intensification, causing nitrogen and phosphorus run-off into the river and resulting in algal bloom breakouts, particularly in the hydro lakes.
In the Waipa catchment, upstream of Ngaruawahia, the main problem is fine sediment and e coli bacteria. The effect of this is most notable during floods when, downstream of Ngaruawahia, the Waipa adds a disproportionate amount of silt and bacteria into the Waikato, hurting water quality.
While there is also silt and bacteria farther up the river, the hydro lakes act as the good guys, cleaning it up by virtue of huge surface areas exposed to sunlight.
Below the hydro lakes, scientists agree the highest priority is native fish passage. Over time, a huge number of barriers such as culverts, stopbanks, pump stations and flood control measures have been erected that have taken a large toll on native fish species. Several species are under threat and work is urgently needed to improve water quality and accessways to give them a better chance at re-establishing sustainable habitats.
Mr Luxton is confident that everyone is starting with the same view: a desire for a cleaner, environmentally sustainable waterway. He knows there is buy-in from the dairy industry and a growing awareness that we all need to take responsibility for the river's future health.
The former Matamata MP's roots are firmly in the fertile dairying soil of the region and, in an allied role, he is the board chairman of Dairy NZ – which aims to enhance the profitability and sustainability of the dairy industry. This makes him well placed to understand the environmental issues and responsibilities farmers face.
"The views within the dairy industry of the changes necessary have shifted markedly over the last five to 10 years. A lot of farmers have been concerned about the image the industry has got over time and want to see that image change.
"As a result we have seen a response from the industry, such as the Clean Streams Accord, that I think will continue to ramp up over time. At the end of the day, the ability to farm is dependent on public support for that activity. It's very important to the Waikato region so the industry is working very hard to comply with what's necessary."
Mr Luxton is adamant the Waikato River Authority is a "partnership model".
"We don't see ourselves as regulators. We see ourselves very much as an encouraging organisation that will provide seed money over time."
Mr Morgan is equally convinced that people are prepared to accept they each have a responsibility towards the river. While the Waikato River is etched in the identity of Tainui, Mr Morgan also knows the clean-up work cannot be done by Maori alone, or by any other single group.
His view is that that everyone with an interest in the river needs to work together to promote its health and well-being.
The authority has come up with six funding priorities it believes will achieve its aims. Mr Luxton says some groups may want only a few hundred or thousand dollars for tree planting and the authority is likely to be sympathetic to those.
"Then there will be the major ones, where a large community is involved and local councils also contribute to achieve something on a much bigger scale. We are just getting established and finding our way to where we can make maximum impact."
He is also confident that, once one area is opened up, for instance by clearing out gorse, then the impetus will be there for other groups to restore the land that in turn will lead to a far more scenic landscape and greater recreational use.
The authority has six funding priorities underpinned by its guiding concepts: protect, restore, health and wellbeing. At the top of its priority list is maatauranga Maori, defined as "Maori knowledge".
The authority believes that projects seeking to restore traditional knowledge to maintain the relationship between the river and its iwi are essential to achieving its aims.
There are also three geographic priorities along the lines suggested by scientists.
From Huka Falls to the Karapiro Dam, the authority will consider funding riparian planting and wetland restoration. From Karapiro to the mouth of the Waikato, the priorities centre on improving connections between ecosystems, better management of drainage systems and habitat enhancement at the lakes.
For the Waipa River, funding priorities centre on sediment issues, larger riparian planting, fencing, and wetland protection.
There is, of course, much work already going on to re-establish areas that have been neglected for decades. Scientists are working on reducing introduced fish species such as koi carp, environmental groups and iwi have undertaken extensive replanting.
But now, with the added backing and support of the Waikato River Authority, all groups with an interest in improving the health and vitality of the river will have the chance to have their efforts boosted in a new setting of collaboration.
As Dr Vant attests: "The more involved you become with the river, the more fascinating it becomes."
This article was commissioned by the Waikato River Authority as a way of further explaining its role in helping clean up the Waikato River. Yesterday, it was announced that the Waikato Regional Council and the authority had signed a partnership agreement outling how the two organisations will work together to clean up the river. The feature was provided to the Waikato Times and written by Susan Pepperell before that announcement was made.
HOW FUNDS WILL FLOW INTO PROJECTS
The Waikato River Clean-Up Trust has $6 million available for the next 12 months for river restoration projects. Over 30 years, the total amount available to restore the river is $210million.
There are four key guiding concepts for projects: protect, restore, health and wellbeing. These define the criteria for projects that will attract funding.
The trust will fund a range of projects of varying size and timeframe.
There are six funding priorities. Three are geographic: above the Karapiro Dam to Huka Falls, Karapiro Dam to the mouth of the Waikato and the Waipa River. The other three are projects that support maatauranga Maori, projects that have a community outcome, projects that help the trust monitor the effectiveness of projects.
More information, including how to apply for funding, can be found at waikatoriver.org.nz.
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