Northland marae aims to restore stagnant stream

The people of a Northland marae have set out to turn a stagnant creek into the river they remember from their childhoods.

The stream once known as the Waima – or clear water – runs below the Whakapara marae, north of Whangarei.

Once it was a river where children played and whānau gathered food to feed their guests. These days it’s a sluggish brown creek.

The marae overlooks a U-shaped bend in the stream, which has been starved of water since a new channel was cut decades ago to help drain surrounding farms.

Marae trustee Tepora Kauwhata said when she was a child, the river provided eels, koura [freshwater crayfish] and watercress, as well as a safe swimming hole.

“It used to run quite swiftly and the kids used to jump in and swim up to a big log… and grab onto it for safety.

“It was a gathering place for the whānau; the great-aunties would do their washing, kids used to come down here and play.”

But when the vast Hikurangi swamp was drained in the 1970s to create some of the most productive dairy farms in Northland, all that changed.

Bends were straightened to get rid of floodwaters faster and meanders, like the one below the marae, turned overnight into sluggish backwaters or crescent shaped ponds known as ox-bows.

Aquatic life disappeared and with it, a way of life for Ngati Hau living nearby.

Te Raa Nehua, a marae elder, said it was like a death.

“For us here, it was like draining the blood out of somebody’s body.

“There was no more water coming through our ox-bow – it was reduced to the point of collapse. It died, pretty much,” he said.

These days Whakapara whānau drive their children 5km upstream to swim.

Tepora Kauwhata said in the upper catchment, beyond the farms, the Waima still lives up to its name.

“You walk down into the bush and it’s beautiful and clean because it’s got all the trees and the forest so there are some nice places up there. We just hope to bring that down here,” she said.

It won’t be happening overnight.

But the marae trustees have convinced the Whangarei Council, the Department of Conservation (DOC) and dairy giant Fonterra to back their dream.

Fonterra, in collaboration with DOC, is helping fund the scheme through its Living Waters project, which aims to improve water quality in a number of key catchments around the country.

Whangarei ecologist David Wright, who has consulted for DOC on several wetland restoration projects in the area, is drawing up a five-year plan to breathe new life into the ox-bow, and the two-hectare weed-ridden island it encircles.

“In the past, the whole catchment would have been forested, and it would have been healthy,” he said.

“Now it’s pumping sediment all the way down to the Kaipara harbour. All of the nitrates, phosphates … all those chemicals. The first step is to plant the banks, provide some shading, and put some sort of structure in the river that will increase the flow and keep it at that level.”

Mr Wright said the simplest way to do that would be a weir.

Whangarei District Council said if the Northland Regional Council gave resource consent, the weir could be built as early as next summer.

Marae trustees hope to begin planting later this winter, with thousand of native trees and grasses donated by the Northland Landcare Trust.