Southland river wins top award

The Waihopai River in Southland has won a national river award.
The Waihopai River in Southland has won a national river award.

The Waihopai River has won the Supreme Award for most improved river in the country.

The announcement was made at the New Zealand River Awards 2019 in Wellington on Thursday night.

The river, near Invercargill, has cleaned up its act, with E. coli dropping 6.1 per cent per annum and its macroinvertebrate community index (MCI) rising 1.9 per cent per annum during the past decade. 

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New Zealand River Awards judge Dr Roger Young said: "New Zealanders want healthy rivers, not just better water quality."

Although Waihopai is this year's supreme winner, the river is by no means pristine. River health is getting better, but considerable improvement is needed to make the river swimmable and its MCI levels are still poor. 

Between 2006 and 2015 a Living Streams project led by Environment Southland worked with farmers to identify issues, prepare farm environment plans, and direct funding to specific initiatives.

The combination of the Living Streams project and the upgrade of urban and industrial wastewater systems have had a marked positive impact on the health of the Waihopai River. 

During the past 10 years the regional and city councils, farmers, industry, and the local community have joined forces to improve water quality and river health. 

A focus on improving wastewater management has also been important. One settlement, with roughly 60 houses had, until recently, been using septic tanks, some of which leaked into the river.

By 2016 the council had completed the wastewater network and most houses have since been connected to the city's wastewater treatment system. 

The annual awards celebrate rivers and catchments that are making major efforts to improve river health.

This year, the judges shifted their focus from a single indicator to a measure that combines E. coli levels and the Macroinvertebrate Community Index as the basis for determining improvement.

"It's very important to emphasise that while the River Awards celebrate improvement in river health, they are also a way of focusing attention on the work that remains to improve rivers around the country," Young said.

"Waihopai River provides a lesson about using a multi-faceted approach in the quest for a healthy river."