Waituna Lagoon Water Quality

June 2011

A group of farmers wotk with DOC and local government to address water quality worries

A DOC initiative on the Awarua Wetlands, an internationally significant wetland area, has sought to engage the local community and farmers in particular in the rehabilitation of the area. The formation of an action group that has major input from farmers has had some success in promoting riparian fencing and planting, and farm management changes aimed at halting nutrient runoff. Public participation in fencing and planting days and information meetings is high. Water quality has started to improve although there is a way to go yet.

When Ray McCrostie first came to the Awarua Wetlands area 40 years ago he used to stand on the bank of the Waituna Creek and watch fish spawning. He, along with many other locals, would fish, catch whitebait, shoot ducks, swim and generally get a lot of recreational pleasure from the creek and the wetland area it drained into.

“Picture in your mind a creek about 20 to 30 feet wide at the top and about 15 feet at the bottom running through the middle of a shallow valley with pasture on either side of the it,” says Ray.

“When I first came here I got a lot of satisfaction out of watching the trout and understood it was one of the best spawning creeks in New Zealand, but slowly they started to disappear. And slowly as the children grew up, they gave up swimming in the creek because it was becoming smelly and they had to shower whenever they went in.”

“We didn’t click onto the problem, you just farm away when you are younger, but eventually with the advent of dairying around here the trout disappeared altogether. I was very concerned at the pollution and so some years ago I wrote a short submission to Environment Southland pointing out that the creek was running white night and morning coinciding with milking times. It wasn’t meaning to cause trouble – I just wrote the facts as I saw them.”

Of course, Ray wasn’t the only one who was concerned at the situation. The Waituna Creek drains into the upper reaches of the Awarua Wetland – 20,000 ha of coastal, low-lying plain of bogs, swamps, heaths, forest and open water bordering the Foveaux coast. It is one of the largest remaining wetland complexes in New Zealand and is nationally and internationally important for wildlife, especially birds that migrate from the northern hemisphere, such as the godwit. Rare and threatened birds like the southern NZ dotterel, bittern, marsh crake and fernbird are also among the 80 or so species that spend all or part of their lives there.

The Awarua wetland comprises coastal lagoons, freshwater swamps, extensive peatlands and estuaries, and is the home for many threatened and uncommon species of flora and fauna including the long-finned eel, giant and banded kokopu, and at least a dozen other marine, estuarine and freshwater fish.

One part of the wetland that is recognised internationally as being of great importance is the 3500 ha Waituna Wetlands Scientific Reserve, registered under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. It comprises the Waituna Lagoon, adjacent peatlands, ponds and coastline, and is Crown land managed by DOC. The site is a significant summer refuge and feeding area for migratory birds, and contains over 150 species of native plants, including subalpine species normally seen only above 900m in the North Island.

Over many years says Ray, various groups and committees had been set up to look at issues in the area but there were very few people involved who actually farmed in the area.

“Then, a few years ago out of the blue, DOC called for farmers on the Waituna to register interest in a new community action group, the Awarua Waituna Advisory Group or AWAG,” he says.

“That piqued my interest and I thought at last after 40 years somebody has figured out that they should involve the farmers who have got creeks running through their properties, and I ended up on the committee.”

The DOC initiative was started in 2007 and aims to restore the wetlands with the help of the local community. Sally Chesterfield, DOC’s manager for the Awarua project, says that the decline in water quality in wetlands threatens a large number of species and reduces the recreational value for hunting, fishing, bird watching, and flora and fauna observation. Local people are significant users of the wetland and have a real passion for the area, so it was important to DOC to ensure that it was doing right by all the communities involved.

“They told us they would like to see things happening in the catchment that would protect the wetlands, so we have set up community groups, we have a fencing programme under way and we have tried at many different levels to engage the locals and the wider Southland community as well,” says Sally.

“AWAG is made up of farmers and community recreational users and we hold regular meetings in the catchment to get general public input into what we are doing and the direction we are taking. We invite them out to planting and track building days, and you get a lot of input from people when you are talking to them one-on-one. We are working in the catchment ourselves and so people have the opportunity to talk to us or phone us.”

There was already a Landcare group established in the Waituna catchment so there was a level of community awareness of the issues, so DOC worked to build on that developing relationships with farmers and recreational users. Special interest groups are also involved, and these include Fish & Game, local iwi, Environment Southland, the Southland District Council, Federated Farmers and Fonterra.

There are about 80 farmers in the catchment, most of them dairying, and Sally says they all are involved in one way or another. One of the Council’s land sustainability officers has been working with farmers on specific management changes that reduce the environmental impact of farming.

One of the main AWAG initiatives is the promotion and subsidising of riparian fencing and planting to keep stock away from waterways and provide a vegetation buffer to slow runoff.

“Farmers are putting a lot of time and money into protecting waterways, and they engage with us in planting creeksides as well,” says Sally.

“And there are a lot of little things that really count too – how they break feed in winter keeping as far away from streams and creeks as possible and moving towards the drier areas of the farm.”

Some are realigning culverts so that they sit deeper in drains and don’t form a “waterfall” barrier that is impossible for small fish to swim up. The extent to which the community has taken the project to heart is shown by the encouraging attendance at meetings.

“We try to do four meetings a year on specific topics that relate to both farming and the wetlands themselves, and we usually have about 80 people turn up which is really great,” says Sally.

“A future AWAG goal is to develop ponds to settle and trap nutrients and so prevent them from getting into the wetlands. Any nutrient runoff represents a loss of income to farmers, so a settling pond is best all round. The ponds create a habitat for some species, and the nutrient-rich sediment can always be dug out and spread on the farm in the future.”

Many farmers, like Ray, had small ponds or wetland areas on their farms but over the years have drained and developed them into pasture. Ray says that once he got involved with AWAG he started to view his farming practices in a different light.

“To be honest up until two or three years ago I hadn’t really done a lot to improve the situation, certainly hadn’t done any fencing, and I used to graze stock right up to the creek edge. However, as I listened to the DOC and environmental people I realised that I was actually a reasonable sort of environmental terrorist,” he says.

“I’m not a greenie by any stretch of the imagination but I had got interested in the environment and the interaction of minerals with soil health. I don’t like nitrogen, and I use a semi-organic microbial fertiliser regime so I didn’t have to make any changes there.”

“The benefit that I have got out of being involved is listening to the environmental debates and hearing different people’s perspectives. Farmers can be notoriously narrow minded – it is their way or the highway – and there is certainly a lot of that still going on, but I have gained a wider viewpoint and I’m now able to debate a lot of issues.”

“And now the water quality is definitely improving in the creek and the fish are starting to come back. We have a long way to go yet but there are signs that the damage is being halted and we are managing things better.”

Sally agrees: “Many farming families have lived here for generations and they are very connected to the land. They are recognising more and more that they have this internationally significant wetland at their doorstep and it is well worth protecting.”