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Restoring our fragile freshwater systems

When I started writing this piece, I was sitting in my Kaiapoi office on a sweltering 30-degree summer’s day, and I could hear faint “plops” as youngsters pulled "phat manus" and "bombs" off the bridge into the Kaiapoi River as generations before them have done. 

Do they know that the river is deemed “unsuitable” for swimming with E. coli levels of up to 2420 per 100ml? This information is available on LAWA’s website Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) - Can I swim here? and makes for sobering reading.  With levels this high, we should supply these youngsters with full PPE gear to wear over their shorts.  The saddest fact is that this story is repeating itself from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

We are witnessing the systemic collapse of New Zealand’s freshwater systems as our environment can no longer handle the extreme pressure we have placed on it through decades of urban and rural intensification. We have taken too much from our environment and we must start giving back.  

Change is coming with a renewed focus on healthy waterways through the National Policy for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) which the Government announced in August 2020, as well as Plan Change 7 to the Canterbury Land & Water Regional Plan (PC7) which progressed through submissions and a hearing in front of independent hearing commissioners last year.  I attended the PC7 hearing in December and it boosted my spirits to observe the passion our community has for improving Waimakariri’s waterways. I hope the changes that come out of PC7 will be bold and far reaching. 

The concept of Te Mana o te Wai underpins the NPS-FM and places the highest value on the health of freshwater systems.  This philosophy is the new basis for how we, as a society, interact with our environment.  The NPS-FM creates a framework for change, but we must also change how we think as Council bodies, as communities, as businesses, and as individuals about how our systems/practices must shift from productive growth mode to sustainability mode, and how we can live within an acceptable environmental footprint.  On an individual level, we need to realise how over the long term that wet paddock or riverbed block would benefit the planet if it were left to revert to a wetland or a more natural state. 

This year the Waimakariri Water Zone Committee will focus on priority areas and working with the community to improve our waterways. We will support change through three newly-formed catchment groups - the Sefton Saltwater Creek Catchment Group, the Landcare Working Group, and the Biodiversity Group.

We are ahead of the curve in Waimakariri in terms of engaging with farmers, waterway conservation groups and the wider community, but we still have a long journey ahead to restore our rivers and streams.  We must work together in a united way to leave our land and water for future generations to inherit in a better state than when we found it.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua - As man disappears from sight, the land remains.

By Michael Blackwell, Chair, Waimakariri Water Zone Committee

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