Wetlands a passion for Waimakariri chair

Michael Blackwell is a wetland man.

The recently elected chair of the Waimakariri Water Zone Committee (WWZC) is heartened by all the efforts that some progressive members of the community are making to preserve and enhance wetlands throughout the zone.

But, in his view, there is much more that could and should be done. He also acknowledges the challenges and sometimes competing interests that can be involved.

Wetland preservation and development is one of several priorities the WWZC will consider as it looks at on-the-ground actions to improve water quality.

“I’d like to see Waimakariri sprout wetlands all through its network of creeks, streams and drains to help filter run-off before it gets into rivers and streams,” Michael said.

The Kaiapoi born-and-bred department store director, who lives on a small block at Tuahiwi, sees himself as a “bridge” between Waimakariri’s rural and urban communities. “We’re all in this together,” he said.

History and experience

As a member of the Kaiapoi community for over 50 years, Michael feels a “deep sadness” looking at the continual degradation of the town’s river.

“But the zone implementation plan addendum (ZIPA) the WWZC put together made a start,” he said.

This led to Part C of the Canterbury Land & Water Plan’s proposed Plan Change 7 for Waimakariri which is now working its way through the Resource Management Act process.

“This should have started many years ago – decades ago.”

Michael is right behind the Government’s recently announced Action for Healthy Waterways.

The combined effect of this, and the improvements from Plan Change 7, will mean future activities, both urban and rural, will have a much higher set of environmental parameters to work under as the health and wellbeing of freshwater is put first in decision-making.

He sees the role of wetlands within catchments as a key point of focus towards meeting the Government’s priorities.

“I’d like to see wetlands created within Waimakariri’s rural drainage network.

“This is an action the Waimakariri District Council can implement over the next decade that will add impetus to the improving farming practices that are already evolving.”

We're all in this together

Michael doesn’t want to wait until the Plan Change’s rules are operative.

His aim is to encourage property owners in both rural and urban areas to do something as soon as possible.

“We have to stop contaminants – nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and E.coli are the big four - being carried across the land into surface water.

“As Greg Byrnes from Te Kōhaka o Tūhaitara Trust says, wetlands are the kidneys of our waterways and we certainly need more kidneys right now.

“You can help improve water quality by using the natural filtering processes of a wetland via drainage water flowing through it. To me, it’s a practical measure we can advocate to landowners as a community.”

Michael is keen to see all landowners, big and small, let their very wet, low or marginally productive land revert to wetland and “let nature do what it does best”.

He regularly paddleboards along the Kaiapoi River. Two areas immediately strike him as worth considering for wetland creation.

“Some of the land alongside McIntosh’s Creek (a straight drain) is heavy and wet and should be retired to let nature take its course, as should some of the lower land flanking both sides of Lineside Road,” he says.

“Historically the drain which runs alongside Lineside ran clear down to the Kaiapoi River where people caught eels and trout. Now that drain is continually full of sediment and loaded with brown sludge. There’s hardly any life left in its lower reaches.”

The state of this drain was raised with the WWZC 18 months ago. “There are drainage concerns and water quality concerns. What I’m hoping for is a good outcome for the river, waterways, landowners and the community.”

What does a good outcome look like?

On a recent Environment Canterbury organised mahinga kai farm tour, he was shown a "fantastic" piece of restored wetland, a springhead on a farm near Saltwater Creek.

Clear water was flowing instead of black sludge. This has been achieved by good fencing setbacks to exclude stock and some long hours replanting 1.5 hectares; a turnaround achieved within four years.

Another property nearby was visited to look at the riparian planting, with a 5m setback from the stream.

“How effective it was in terms of protecting the waterway. The disappointment was in the neighbour’s paddock, where a winter feed crop was planted right up to the edge of the stream.

"So come winter, this will be creating a whole paddock load of point source sedimentation, degrading the same waterway.”

Michael uses a statement by previous Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, as his mantra: “The quality of our waterways is a reflection of how we live on the land.”

“So how are we living? If we look at the Kaiapoi River, we are living very poorly from an environmental point of view – and that applies both to our urban and rural residents.

“This is a community problem and we have to move forward as a community to help resolve this historical environmental damage.

“I want to see my grandchildren be able to safely enjoy these river systems within the next two decades.”

For advice on wetland restoration and biodiversity project support, contact us on 0800 324 636.