How are residents, rivers and restoration connected?

A story from The Waimatā River, Aotearoa New Zealand

Author: Danielle Cairns

The Waimatā River in New Zealand’s North Island flows through the steep hills to the east of Gisborne, meeting the Taruheru River to form the Tūranganui River. The river has a rich local history, significant to both Māori (indigenous people of New Zealand) and Pākehā (non-indigenous people of New Zealand). The river’s foreshore marks the landing place of Captain Cook in 1769, as well as the first meeting of Māori and Pākehā.

The river’s history hasn’t been free of conflict. Colonisation of the area by Europeans in the early 1800s established western agricultural practices which were at odds with the Maori’s relationship to their environment.  By way of example, conflict over the river erupted between the Māori and Pākehā when Te Toka-ā-Taiau, a large rock in the Waimatā channel, sacred to Māori and believed to hold mauri (life force), was blown up to allow for the development of the Gisborne Port in 1877.

The foreshore of the Tūranganui River (lower Waimatā River) looking across Poverty Bay and the Gisborne Port. Credit: Jenny Cairns.

Today, the Waimatā River has a range of uses, as it flows through catchments with agricultural areas, commercial forestry, small rural towns and larger urban centres. These human impacts have degraded the river’s water quality and wildlife habitat, making restoration an important focus for action to improve river health, environmental condition and human access for recreation and spiritual connections.

River restoration has commonly been perceived to be a purely physical science, measuring scientific and technical goals that define, and seek to address concerns, for ‘river health’. However, engaging with people and communities that live near and use the river is an important part of river restoration.  This is what became the focus of my research into the relationships between residents, rivers and restoration on the Waimata River.

What is effective restoration?

The effectiveness of a restoration initiative is entirely dependent upon how success is measured. Public engagement is one way to measure the benefit of restoration initiatives, and surveys of societal relations provide critical baseline information with which to measure success. Without this information, the ability to generate social impact evidence-based appraisals of the effectiveness of restoration programmes are limited. 

My research investigated local relations to the Waimatā River in Aotearoa, New Zealand, using a mixed-methods approach to ask residents about the values they felt the river provided, what their connection to the river is, what concerns and pressures they felt the river might be experiencing, and what their aspirations for the river.  I then looked at these responses to see if they varied spatially across the catchment.

A tributary confluence on the Waimatā River showing the high levels of sedimentation entering the river from forestry and agricultural land. Credit: Danielle Cairns.

What did I find?

For the purposes of my research, I divided the catchment into three groups based on geography and population of the respondents. These were: 

  • The upper catchment – agricultural and forestry land
  • The mid catchment – the transitional area between rural and urban land
  • The lower catchment – Gisborne City

When analysing the responses I found that geography and history are key determinants of how residents relate to river systems. Where residents lived within the catchment was found to shape their interactions with the river, how they valued it, what they perceived to be pressures on it, and their concerns and aspirations for the future of the Waimatā River. Most importantly, all respondents wanted to see improved water quality and swimmability. 

Upper catchment:
Currently, land use in the upper catchment is predominantly forestry, sheep and beef farming. These land uses have resulted in poor riparian conditions, as the river now experiences high erosion and sedimentation rates, high nutrient and E. coli concentrations, low biodiversity, and severe flooding events. 

Residents in the upper catchment that interacted with the river for work or agricultural purposes valued the river for its wilderness and aesthetic appeal. River health was perceived to be higher here than the rest of the catchment, likely due to the poorer environmental state of the river in its lower reaches. For those in the upper catchment, water quality and forest clearance were the greatest concerns for the river. This is unsurprising considering forestry slash and erosion had caused significant damage to infrastructure in the area. Agricultural runoff was not perceived to be a pressure by the residents in the upper catchment; instead, forestry and industrial processes were identified. Their aspirations aligned with their concerns, wanting increased forest cover and increased biodiversity.

The upper reaches of the Waimatā River. Credit: Chris Turner.

Mid catchment:
Those in the mid catchment – the transition between rural and urban areas – interacted with the river for recreational purposes, namely fishing, walking, and swimming, and valued the river for its biodiversity and educational attributes. River health was perceived to be lower than the upper catchment. Water quality and erosion were the greatest concerns; many residents explained how rainfall events had led to a loss of land on their riverside properties. Agricultural runoff and forest clearance were perceived to be the greatest pressures. Many respondents here emphasised the responsibility of the Gisborne District Council and other residents for the river’s degradation. Residents in this area were the most likely to fish and wanted to see increased aquatic life and fishing potential in the Waimatā. 

Lower catchment:
In the urban catchment further downstream, residents interacted with the river for recreational purposes (namely paddling sports, walking and swimming) and valued it for this and its scenic attributes. Perceptions of river health were lowest in this area of the catchment and respondents were most concerned by water quality and clarity. As with the mid catchment, respondents believed agricultural runoff and forest clearance to be the greatest pressures on the river. Residents wanted to see increased scenic beauty and public education and awareness regarding river health. These aspirations were related to what they valued the river for and who they deemed responsible for river health.  

The importance of healthy rivers for residents

This study showed that there is a key connection between river health and public wellbeing, with 81% of respondents believing this to be the case. As one respondent summarised it: “We are all connected… healthy water, healthy people”. 

Residents spoke of the role of the river in their life, the joy it brought them to watch the sparkle of the water, its flows and ebbs, its wildlife and swimming in the water themselves. Some spoke of the benefits and grounding that meditating on the river provided. They also spoke of the shift in emotion they felt when the river was in a poorer state. 

This was also linked to the cultural connection between people and the river stretching back to the 1300s when the Horouta and Tākitimu waka arrived. The Waimatā was considered part of their whakapapa (genealogy) and was embodied in the phrase “ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” (I am the river, the river is me).  

The obvious benefits exercising on the river had on physical health were also mentioned. Many respondents participated in rowing, kayaking and waka ama (outrigger canoe sport and part of Pacific culture) and spoke of how this kept them in physical shape. While these were positive, the concerning link between river health and physical health emerged. Waka ama paddlers recalled illnesses they had contracted from being exposed to the polluted water of the river, some resulting in hospitalisations. One resident recounted pulling a large item from the riverbed and finding it to be labelled hazardous waste from the local hospital. 

The connections between river health and public wellbeing, positive and negative, highlight the importance of blue spaces (places close to rivers, creeks, lakes and oceans) and interactions with them. In light of this, there is a greater need for protection and restoration of river systems. 

So why are local relations so important in river management? 

Understanding how people relate to river systems can help in providing effective restoration. These relations and information provided by residents can help in determining the targets and goals of restoration, generating community interest and involvement, and motivating individuals to contribute to the restoration process. By engaging residents in restoration and finding these shared goals, long-term prospects for the success of restoration that rehabilitates and protects river systems are enhanced as people will likely take an interest in it. Restoration that is not designed with relations and social considerations means that positive impacts from restoration may not be sustained. 

And simply put…

“Everybody profits from a healthy river,
everyone suffers if it is not usable”. 

This Masters thesis was supervised by Gary Brierley and Gretel Boswijk in the school of Environment at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.

Main photo (top of page): Residents using the mid-catchment of the Waimatā for recreational purposes. Source: Waikereru Ecosanctuary. 

About the author
Danielle recently completed her Masters in Environmental Science from the University of Auckland. She currently works as a freshwater ecologist and is particularly interested in the interface between physical and social science in freshwater management.

ARRC reflection on this article

We at the ARRC found it interesting that Danielle’s work highlighted the disconnect between residents in the catchments upstream and downstream, although both valued similar aspects of the river’s biodiversity. Those in the upstream catchments did not view agricultural runoff as the key reason for the river’s degradation, instead blaming the forestry industry. Whereas, residents downstream viewed both agricultural runoff and forest clearance as the greatest pressures. It’s possible the upper catchment residents were unaware that the lower catchment residents viewed their agricultural activities as a key pressure on the river. Danielle’s finding that community engagement in river restoration is important for successful outcomes demonstrates that, above all, communicating and finding common goals are essential to protect and restore our rivers. As with many issues globally, human beings naturally tend to blame others rather than looking for ways to fix the problem ourselves, so hopefully this more people-centric approach to restoration through understanding how people use and connect to rivers will see better outcomes for the environment.

Kate McKenna & Siwan Lovett

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