In the summer months Waitara bridge serves as a playground for school kids of all ages. As many as forty boys and girls will leap, bomb and flip into the water at once.
While cold weather keeps them inside, come summer they’ll back at it.
When I spoke to the kids who usually congregate to the bridge they told me it wasn’t the cars or the height they feared, it was the water.
“Mum won’t let me come here,” said Reef a thirteen year old.
In January 2016 levels of E.coli crossed action level, Taranaki regional council put up signs to warn against swimming or the collection of shellfish. While kaimoana have reluctantly been left alone the children still swim, it’s become a part of their culture and mere signs won’t stand in the way of that.
But they get sick and they stop. A tradition is dying.
Andrea Pikiore Moore from the group Friends of the Waitara River Inc says, “It’s all about the needs of humans and taking from the natural environment. Stones for roading, trees for farming or ‘flood protection’… -the health of our river is under continual bombardment.”
Retired dairy farmer Lindsay Dickson agrees, “Intensifying cows or people will decrease water quality.” He looks out to the water, “Run-off used to go into the streams and no-one was affected because there were hardly any cows.”
Various signs warning of health risks associated with shellfish collection.
A 2016 report published by the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) found that “Currently half of the region’s dairy farms discharge to water.” This report agrees with the council’s own findings; “That faecal bacteria found in the river were sourced predominantly from cattle.” Also in 2016 the Green party placed the Waitara river on it’s top ten list of waterways it was going to revive.
A comparison between the Waitara river (Right) and the Urenui river (Left). The Urenui river is also a tidal, mud bottomed river. – Spot the difference
So what’s being done?
The TRC found that riparian planting has been shown to be amongst the most effective, cost-efficient means of promoting stream health and is in the midst of a riparian management programme that offers low cost fencing and plants to farmers with watercourses running through their land. They are “Confident that this project will be largely completed by the end of the decade.”
Local schools have been involved in both beach clean-ups and planting of trees along the river bank and the human sewerage that was once intentionally dumped is now treated and being piped offshore.
The water is still murky, shellfish can’t be collected and swimmers and surfers alike get sick, but as the New Zealand public turns it’s attention to waterways and the quality that’s been lost there seems to be a momentum gathering. Maybe we can fix our mistakes, work with nature instead of against it, and the Waitara river can run clear once more.