Most polluted river in Tasman returning to pristine state in first for New Zealand (+ video)

By Charlotte Squire

CJ Webster

Claire (CJ) Webster is involved in a groundbreaking river restoration project in Takaka that will see the once heavily polluted Motupipi River returning to its pre-European state.

Claire, who works as education and partnerships officer for Tasman District Council, saw the potential of the spring-fed Motupipi River over 10 years ago.

“When I first moved to the bay, I saw a spring-fed, unique river that was choked with willow, and I got passionate about trying to get a project together to deal with it. 

“I couldn’t get the money and energy just within council but we ended up with a perfect collaboration, with Project Mohua owning the project, Tasman Environment Trust managing the finances, Annette Litherland from Landcare Trust doing the project management of the overall project, and me getting as many as I could within council departments; it’s just come together fantastically.

“The purpose is to get the sediment out; historically it got in there for a variety of reasons. We’re trying to reconstruct a habitat that would be ideal for giant kōkapu, tuna (eels) and inanga to live in again. In 15 years’ time this should be a thriving environment. Many other animals will benefit too, and people.”

Claire says Takaka Primary School has been involved the whole way through, and land owners are “phenomenal”, having planted thousands of trees along the river and its tributaries.

She says this project is groundbreaking for New Zealand in that the river is an unusual mix of river and wetland with low flow. 

They’ve employed Belgium ecologist Sebastien Den Doncker to design this section of habitat restoration, “as his skill base is just awesome”.

“It’s not so much what farmers are doing today, but it’s Tasman’s worst water quality river, mostly because of really high nitrate and phosphate, and so this project is going to help that. We’re working with the farmers about what else we can do to help them fix what’s historical rather than current.” 

Claire says diggers are not just going in there and scooping out sediment. They’re changing the river’s path and creating meanders, big pools, and log habitats.

“So we’re creating what is missing. And then when we plant kahikatea and carex there in the future, in 50 years that would be the same sort of habitat [as pre-European].”

This article was featured in Climate Love Golden Bay April 2021.

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