Community and Education news

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5 November 2019

2019 NZ River Story Finalist Wharekopae River, Gisborne

Cawthron is proud to be running the 2019 New Zealand River Awards. As part of the celebration, the River Story Award category sponsored by the Ministry for the Environment recognises interesting and compelling stories about individuals, businesses and communities working to improve the health of our rivers.

Each year Cawthron receives River Story entries that are representative of our collective desire to improve New Zealand waterways. The stories are inspirational projects that involve community collaboration, science and innovative ways to address freshwater-related challenges.

This year, eight stories were selected as finalists and from these, the judges have selected the top three. The work being done to restore Rere’s Wharekopae River catchment is our second story.

Located within the Wharekopae River catchment are two features which are popular with locals and visitors; the Rere Falls and Rere Rockslide. These gifts from nature provide a 60-metre smooth, mossy waterslide into the Wharekopae River. The Rockslide provides fun for thousands of people each summer; both those who dare to do it, and those who are content to watch.

The Rere Water Quality Enhancement Project was initiated in 2015 after two reports pointed to issues with water quality in the catchment. A State of the Environment report identified E. coli in the Wharekopae River as being below the minimum acceptable states, and the ‘Natural Character’ report 2012 for the Gisborne region identified the Rere Rockslide as having the highest score for ‘natural character and community values’ with water quality as a main limiting factor.

The Rere farming community’s commitment to improving the Wharekopae River’s water quality is paying big dividends, and involves all 15 sheep and beef farms in the upper Wharekopae catchment, Gisborne District Council (GDC), Ministry for the Environment (MfE), and Beef and Lamb New Zealand.

Rere farmer Mark Gemmell has been involved since the start. He was born in the district and has a strong association with the land. Mark has farmed here for the past 40 years and has seen lots of change during this time. A change that he is most proud of is the work that the community has done to improve water quality.

“Early on we had lots of community meetings and field days and everyone feels a part of it,” says Mark. “Gisborne District Council staff have been great at explaining the benefits to us and were instrumental in getting the project started.”

Initially GDC undertook intensive weekly river monitoring of the Wharekopae and the tributaries that flow into it. This data provided information about where the problem areas were.

Livestock entering the river was a big contributor to poor water quality and one way to address this was fencing. Funding – equivalent to 50% of the total cost – was provided to farmers to fence the waterway. Financial assistance was also provided for riparian planting and for installing reticulation schemes.

The next step was assistance with farm environment plans and nutrient budgets. Through these plans, farmers assessed their operations and identified areas where they could make improvements that were environmentally and economically beneficial. They could then apply to GDC for funding assistance to implement improvements, helping to reduce contaminants from farms reaching waterways.

“The upper Wharekopae was the first catchment in the Gisborne region and one of the first in New Zealand with nearly every farm having completed a plan,” says Mark.

“Every farm owner is invested in improving the water quality. They’re doing some amazing work – collecting water samples, fencing water ways, planting riparian zones and installing water reticulation systems. Today more than 10km of the river is fenced.”

Agricultural practices were one contributor to poor water quality in the Wharekopae, but there are other contributors such as birds and pest species like wild goats. Human contact is also an issue and freedom camping, along with rubbish left by visitors, has had to be addressed.

The Rere is a collaborative project which benefits everyone. The community share a common goal of wanting future generations to be able to swim in the river, and are working hard to see this happen.