Charting the Waimata’s many voices

The Waimata River is one of the region’s most loved waterways, yet it faces a range of environmental challenges. A multi-faceted research project seeks to chart its history to inform future decisions about its restoration. Michael Neilson chats to Dame Anne Salmond and Sheridan Gundry about the process so far and the stories they have uncovered.

The Waimata River is one of the region’s most loved waterways, yet it faces a range of environmental challenges. A multi-faceted research project seeks to chart its history to inform future decisions about its restoration. Michael Neilson chats to Dame Anne Salmond and Sheridan Gundry about the process so far and the stories they have uncovered.

LOVE FOR THE RIVER: Despite the range of challenges facing the Waimata River, researchers Sheridan Gundry and Dame Anne Salmond have found a strong love for the waterway that runs right through Gisborne city. They hope their research can help inform future decisions about its restoration. Picture by Liam Clayton
PEOPLE AND THE RIVER: This picture shows people going for a paddle along the Waimata River in 1904. A current research project charting the history of the Waimata River places a strong emphasis on the connections between people and the river. “A lot of people study rivers and forget about people,” researcher Dame Anne Salmond says. Picture from the William Crawford Collection, Tairawhiti Museum

Nearly everybody in Gisborne has a story to tell about the Waimata River, says writer, scholar and environmentalist Dame Anne Salmond.

With a family home on Grant Road, she and her brothers and sisters grew up on the river, swimming, paddling and fishing.

“Most people in Gisborne have a close relationship with the river, one way or another.”

The Waimata River has produced countless childhood memories, and even gold medal kayakers and champion waka ama paddlers.

Living on its banks are farming families in the high country and urban dwellers in town, all with their own stories.

But the state of the river has not always been at the forefront of the community’s mind.

There are stories of the “good burns”, when the settlers started clearing the native forest for farming.

It was around the 1880s, when ownership of land in the Waimata catchment changed from tangata whenua to settlers intent on farming the steep, soft land.

“The settlers got in there and felled the bush,” Gisborne journalist and historian Sheridan Gundry says.

She has compiled accounts from newspaper articles of the time.

“A ‘good burn’ was a couple of thousand acres of native bush.

“People on ships out at sea thought there was a volcanic eruption because there was so much smoke coming out of the river valley.

“People in town had to turn their lights on mid-afternoon because of the smoke.”

Charting river's history

Compiling these stories — the good and the bad — is all part of a project to chart the river’s history into an illustrated account.

The researchers hope it will prove a valuable resource for the Gisborne community in making important decisions about the river’s future.

“The ultimate goal is to make sure the river stays in good heart for future generations, and improves,” Dame Anne says.

It is part of Te Awaroa: 1000 Rivers project, funded by the University of Auckland, which seeks to understand New Zealand’s awa (waterways) in all of their dimensions.

The Waimata case study has involved researching the geology, river geomorphology (changes in river direction), ecology, and also the people on the river, as a living system through time.

While other Gisborne rivers have drawn global attention, such as the sediment-choked Waipaoa River fed by the world-famous Tarndale Slip, there has not been a lot of research on the Waimata, even though it has such strong community connections and passes right through the heart of Gisborne.

“A lot of people who study rivers forget about people,” Dame Anne says.

“But people live by and on them. We are trying to understand how people feel about the river, and what they think might work to leave it in good shape.”

Dame Anne is leading the project, while Sheridan is looking at the settler history on the river.

Other researchers from Gisborne, the University of Auckland and Massey University will tackle the rest.

Research in early phase

While the research is still in the early phases, Sheridan has already spoken to a few dozen people, including tangata whenua, farmers, families, gold medal kayakers, council staff, scientists — all of those who have spent a lot of time next to, on and in the river.

In pre-European times, the Waimata was a highway, linking Turanga with Uawa and Whangara on the Coast. The upper valleys were used to collect bush foods, with gardens on the flood plains. Where the river runs into the sea, Te Wai-o-Hiharore, was a fishing reserve. Inland people could fish there without being molested.

Near the river mouth a sacred rock, Te Toka-a-Taiau (now underwater), marks the arrival of the voyaging canoes Horouta and Takitimu.

At the river mouth, Captain James Cook and his companions stepped ashore in October 1769, the first Europeans to land in New Zealand.

Today the Waimata faces a raft of challenges, many of which can be charted to changes of land use in the catchment.

When the soil-holding native vegetation was burned down it increased the amount of silt and sediment washing into the river.

Now much of the exotic forest planted to hold the soft rock is in turn being clear-felled.

With no bush buffers, sediment and debris are swept into the streams, down the river into the harbour, and on to the beaches.

“Soon after the native bush was removed there were massive slips and flooding on the Waimata,” Dame Anne says.

The increased flow carved out the harbour. But the sediment coming with it is the reason the port still needs to dredge today.

At low tide in some places it is possible to walk across the sediment-laden river, which once had a stony bed.

Geomorphologists working on the project describe the Waimata River valley as a “giant chute”, because of its large catchment area and lack of “chokepoints” where hard rock constrains the flow of the river, slowing it down and creating flood plains.

A city on a floodplain

With the city built on a flood plain, sediment raising the river bed and sea level rise with climate change, there are bound to be major flooding issues in future.

But it is not only water washing down the river.

Forestry slash, farming effluent, sewage discharges, even people’s rubbish all wash down to the sea.

“What goes into the river ends up in the ocean,” Dame Anne says.

The city bridges the Waimata passes under carry the power and water supply. If they were knocked out in a big flood it would be catastrophic.

With the river a popular summer swimming spot, upstream activities also have effects on those downstream.

Floods can wash away waterholes, sediment fill them in, and discharges — from farming and the city sewerage system — can make people sick.

“People often don’t realise what they are doing on their land by the river affects other people,” Dame Anne says.

“When pine plantations are felled upstream there is a huge amount of extra water and sediment in the river, and if farmers discharge pollutants it can make people sick.”

It also impacts the marine environment.

Sediment plumes and slash coming out of the river mouth cover reefs and shellfish, affect fish life and cover the beaches.

Older farming practices uncovered in the research included sticking dead animals and pouring sheep dip straight into the river.

“They tried to introduce trout here, but they weren’t surviving,” Sheridan says.

“An expert said if the farmers stopped putting sheep dip straight into the river, trout might have a better success rate.

“But that was common practice at the time.”

While this practice has changed, some attitudes have not.

“Some people still pile up rubbish on the edge of their section waiting for the next fresh to take it away.”

Widespread love for river

Despite these issues the researchers have found a widespread love of the river, from farmers through to those who train on it every day.

“The love people have for the Waimata really impressed me,” Dame Anne says, who, with her husband Jeremy, has established Longbush Ecosanctuary on the banks of the Waimata River, and undertaken riparian planting and restoration work.

“The guys who have kayaked it for 40, 50 years. People using it as part of their everyday lives. Some call it the river of gold because it has produced so many gold medals, from rowing, kayaking and waka ama.”

Through these conversations they have uncovered ideas about how to address some of the river’s issues.

Working with Landcare Research’s Dr Mike Marden they have figured out which riverbanks would be most effective to plant.

“Some people have always said we should fence and plant all riverbanks, but it is not that simple,” Sheridan says.

It takes a huge amount of land away from farmers, and in some sections plantings can be knocked out easily in high river flows.

“We need to identify areas where riparian restoration should happen, and the types of plants that are most effective.

“There is not one rule for the whole river.”

The researchers have also discovered a few surprises.

“There is an abundance of fish in the river at times,” Sheridan says.

“Some say it is amazing how many fish there are.”

Improving NZ's waterways

The wider aim of the Waimata project is to inform the general debate about the state of New Zealand’s waterways and how to improve them.

“There is huge concern about the state of freshwater in New Zealand,” Dame Anne says.

“In different parts of the country rivers are collapsing, lakes are dying, people, dogs and stock are getting sick, or even dying, after drinking out of particular lakes and rivers.

“In Canterbury there are even rivers that are not reaching the sea any more.”

Legislation to grant Whanganui River legal standing in its own right could happen all around the country, she says.

“Rivers have been around a lot longer than people in this country.

“There was about 80 million years of independent evolution in these islands before people turned up.

“This idea that we can use a river as a sewer and a rubbish dump, fill it with sediment and slash and think it will sort itself out, it does not work like that.

“People are getting sick while doing things they love doing, such as swimming, and other people don’t have the right to do that to them.”

Another idea is putting waterways into public trusts, as happens in a number of other countries.

“It is a more gentle approach,” Dame Anne says.

“It spells out expectations for the state, councils and private and public users to maintain ecological balance, wildlife, scenic beauty and public use.

“Users wouldn’t be able to do things that deprived others from enjoying the river.

“It would ensure it stayed in good heart for future generations.”

English common law principle

The idea comes from English common law jurist Sir William Blackstone, who said water allowed usage not ownership, but that users could not pollute, divert or poison a waterway, interfering with others’ enjoyment.

“The Government says no one owns the water, quoting Blackstone’s common law, but then ignores some of these other common law restraints.”

Parts of the United States have adopted this approach. In Hawaii the public trust concept has been used to set minimum flows for rivers and ensure cultural rights are protected.

“It seems to work really well over there. It means the government can’t then just shrug its shoulders, it has to uphold those values.

“In New Zealand it could be a very Kiwi one, giving rivers their own rights. It could recognise iwi and hapu relationships with waterways, without getting into divisive arguments over ownership.

“I think people also love the idea of being able to hand over our rivers in good shape to future generations.”

Whatever the outcome, the researchers hope their illustrated account will provide the Gisborne community with a resource to inform future decisions about the river.

“It is a koha to the community, which has not had to pay for any of this, so those resources can go into future work on the Waimata,” Dame Anne says.

Nearly everybody in Gisborne has a story to tell about the Waimata River, says writer, scholar and environmentalist Dame Anne Salmond.

With a family home on Grant Road, she and her brothers and sisters grew up on the river, swimming, paddling and fishing.

“Most people in Gisborne have a close relationship with the river, one way or another.”

The Waimata River has produced countless childhood memories, and even gold medal kayakers and champion waka ama paddlers.

Living on its banks are farming families in the high country and urban dwellers in town, all with their own stories.

But the state of the river has not always been at the forefront of the community’s mind.

There are stories of the “good burns”, when the settlers started clearing the native forest for farming.

It was around the 1880s, when ownership of land in the Waimata catchment changed from tangata whenua to settlers intent on farming the steep, soft land.

“The settlers got in there and felled the bush,” Gisborne journalist and historian Sheridan Gundry says.

She has compiled accounts from newspaper articles of the time.

“A ‘good burn’ was a couple of thousand acres of native bush.

“People on ships out at sea thought there was a volcanic eruption because there was so much smoke coming out of the river valley.

“People in town had to turn their lights on mid-afternoon because of the smoke.”

Charting river's history

Compiling these stories — the good and the bad — is all part of a project to chart the river’s history into an illustrated account.

The researchers hope it will prove a valuable resource for the Gisborne community in making important decisions about the river’s future.

“The ultimate goal is to make sure the river stays in good heart for future generations, and improves,” Dame Anne says.

It is part of Te Awaroa: 1000 Rivers project, funded by the University of Auckland, which seeks to understand New Zealand’s awa (waterways) in all of their dimensions.

The Waimata case study has involved researching the geology, river geomorphology (changes in river direction), ecology, and also the people on the river, as a living system through time.

While other Gisborne rivers have drawn global attention, such as the sediment-choked Waipaoa River fed by the world-famous Tarndale Slip, there has not been a lot of research on the Waimata, even though it has such strong community connections and passes right through the heart of Gisborne.

“A lot of people who study rivers forget about people,” Dame Anne says.

“But people live by and on them. We are trying to understand how people feel about the river, and what they think might work to leave it in good shape.”

Dame Anne is leading the project, while Sheridan is looking at the settler history on the river.

Other researchers from Gisborne, the University of Auckland and Massey University will tackle the rest.

Research in early phase

While the research is still in the early phases, Sheridan has already spoken to a few dozen people, including tangata whenua, farmers, families, gold medal kayakers, council staff, scientists — all of those who have spent a lot of time next to, on and in the river.

In pre-European times, the Waimata was a highway, linking Turanga with Uawa and Whangara on the Coast. The upper valleys were used to collect bush foods, with gardens on the flood plains. Where the river runs into the sea, Te Wai-o-Hiharore, was a fishing reserve. Inland people could fish there without being molested.

Near the river mouth a sacred rock, Te Toka-a-Taiau (now underwater), marks the arrival of the voyaging canoes Horouta and Takitimu.

At the river mouth, Captain James Cook and his companions stepped ashore in October 1769, the first Europeans to land in New Zealand.

Today the Waimata faces a raft of challenges, many of which can be charted to changes of land use in the catchment.

When the soil-holding native vegetation was burned down it increased the amount of silt and sediment washing into the river.

Now much of the exotic forest planted to hold the soft rock is in turn being clear-felled.

With no bush buffers, sediment and debris are swept into the streams, down the river into the harbour, and on to the beaches.

“Soon after the native bush was removed there were massive slips and flooding on the Waimata,” Dame Anne says.

The increased flow carved out the harbour. But the sediment coming with it is the reason the port still needs to dredge today.

At low tide in some places it is possible to walk across the sediment-laden river, which once had a stony bed.

Geomorphologists working on the project describe the Waimata River valley as a “giant chute”, because of its large catchment area and lack of “chokepoints” where hard rock constrains the flow of the river, slowing it down and creating flood plains.

A city on a floodplain

With the city built on a flood plain, sediment raising the river bed and sea level rise with climate change, there are bound to be major flooding issues in future.

But it is not only water washing down the river.

Forestry slash, farming effluent, sewage discharges, even people’s rubbish all wash down to the sea.

“What goes into the river ends up in the ocean,” Dame Anne says.

The city bridges the Waimata passes under carry the power and water supply. If they were knocked out in a big flood it would be catastrophic.

With the river a popular summer swimming spot, upstream activities also have effects on those downstream.

Floods can wash away waterholes, sediment fill them in, and discharges — from farming and the city sewerage system — can make people sick.

“People often don’t realise what they are doing on their land by the river affects other people,” Dame Anne says.

“When pine plantations are felled upstream there is a huge amount of extra water and sediment in the river, and if farmers discharge pollutants it can make people sick.”

It also impacts the marine environment.

Sediment plumes and slash coming out of the river mouth cover reefs and shellfish, affect fish life and cover the beaches.

Older farming practices uncovered in the research included sticking dead animals and pouring sheep dip straight into the river.

“They tried to introduce trout here, but they weren’t surviving,” Sheridan says.

“An expert said if the farmers stopped putting sheep dip straight into the river, trout might have a better success rate.

“But that was common practice at the time.”

While this practice has changed, some attitudes have not.

“Some people still pile up rubbish on the edge of their section waiting for the next fresh to take it away.”

Widespread love for river

Despite these issues the researchers have found a widespread love of the river, from farmers through to those who train on it every day.

“The love people have for the Waimata really impressed me,” Dame Anne says, who, with her husband Jeremy, has established Longbush Ecosanctuary on the banks of the Waimata River, and undertaken riparian planting and restoration work.

“The guys who have kayaked it for 40, 50 years. People using it as part of their everyday lives. Some call it the river of gold because it has produced so many gold medals, from rowing, kayaking and waka ama.”

Through these conversations they have uncovered ideas about how to address some of the river’s issues.

Working with Landcare Research’s Dr Mike Marden they have figured out which riverbanks would be most effective to plant.

“Some people have always said we should fence and plant all riverbanks, but it is not that simple,” Sheridan says.

It takes a huge amount of land away from farmers, and in some sections plantings can be knocked out easily in high river flows.

“We need to identify areas where riparian restoration should happen, and the types of plants that are most effective.

“There is not one rule for the whole river.”

The researchers have also discovered a few surprises.

“There is an abundance of fish in the river at times,” Sheridan says.

“Some say it is amazing how many fish there are.”

Improving NZ's waterways

The wider aim of the Waimata project is to inform the general debate about the state of New Zealand’s waterways and how to improve them.

“There is huge concern about the state of freshwater in New Zealand,” Dame Anne says.

“In different parts of the country rivers are collapsing, lakes are dying, people, dogs and stock are getting sick, or even dying, after drinking out of particular lakes and rivers.

“In Canterbury there are even rivers that are not reaching the sea any more.”

Legislation to grant Whanganui River legal standing in its own right could happen all around the country, she says.

“Rivers have been around a lot longer than people in this country.

“There was about 80 million years of independent evolution in these islands before people turned up.

“This idea that we can use a river as a sewer and a rubbish dump, fill it with sediment and slash and think it will sort itself out, it does not work like that.

“People are getting sick while doing things they love doing, such as swimming, and other people don’t have the right to do that to them.”

Another idea is putting waterways into public trusts, as happens in a number of other countries.

“It is a more gentle approach,” Dame Anne says.

“It spells out expectations for the state, councils and private and public users to maintain ecological balance, wildlife, scenic beauty and public use.

“Users wouldn’t be able to do things that deprived others from enjoying the river.

“It would ensure it stayed in good heart for future generations.”

English common law principle

The idea comes from English common law jurist Sir William Blackstone, who said water allowed usage not ownership, but that users could not pollute, divert or poison a waterway, interfering with others’ enjoyment.

“The Government says no one owns the water, quoting Blackstone’s common law, but then ignores some of these other common law restraints.”

Parts of the United States have adopted this approach. In Hawaii the public trust concept has been used to set minimum flows for rivers and ensure cultural rights are protected.

“It seems to work really well over there. It means the government can’t then just shrug its shoulders, it has to uphold those values.

“In New Zealand it could be a very Kiwi one, giving rivers their own rights. It could recognise iwi and hapu relationships with waterways, without getting into divisive arguments over ownership.

“I think people also love the idea of being able to hand over our rivers in good shape to future generations.”

Whatever the outcome, the researchers hope their illustrated account will provide the Gisborne community with a resource to inform future decisions about the river.

“It is a koha to the community, which has not had to pay for any of this, so those resources can go into future work on the Waimata,” Dame Anne says.

Photos needed

The researchers are putting out a call for any photos that show people’s connections with river, including swimming, fishing, kayaking, waka ama, flooding — anything of interest. New and old.

Email them to Sheridan Gundry at write@gems.co.nz

Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by a staff member. Comments may be edited for clarity.