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Tairāwhiti's Freshwater Revival



Waikanae Surf Club was packed with a motley crew if there ever was one. There were folks from forestry, iwi, farming and a few others, like scientists and engineers, all here to discuss Tairāwhiti freshwater: It’s dirty, it’s got actual human crap in it, we take too much, and often it’s not safe to swim in our water. To put it lightly, we've got problems.


I’d been invited by Gisborne District Council (Council) to observe a ​​freshwater advisory group session and share this meeting of minds with the rest of you. Why is this important? The group is tasked with helping the Council develop the Tairāwhiti Regional Freshwater Management Plan by debating and recommending changes, and every drop of freshwater is caught up in this plan.


"For years the Council come and told us what we can do, how we can do it, end of story," Stan Pardoe said, one of the community advisors, there to share his two cents with the Regional Freshwater Advisory Group. Stan has a unique perspective and yet has the ability to speak for much of the community, cutting through demographics and seeing the world through many eyes.


A farmer, father, grandfather, fisherman, leader and storyteller. In Tairāwhiti he’s mustered 30 years of farming experience, was the chair of Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust and deputy chair for Te Runanga o Turanganui-a-Kiwa, and that’s just a few of his personalities. Today he’s one of the many locals helping advise the Council on Tairāwhiti’s Freshwater Plan. Stan says what is happening today is refreshing.Stan says Council used to issue commands without listening. “Not this time around. They actually want to come and talk to us and get some ideas. And it’s a game-changer.” He says Council is taking the time to connect with the public and get feedback on plans. "We won't have all the answers. There'll be some things we're going to disagree with there, but at least we're willing to share information."


Still, he’s been around long enough and sat through enough hui to be realistic. "Whether it'll affect the policy either regionally or nationally, that's in the lap of the gods. But this group will give it a good thrashing."


To say the group has differences is an understatement. From political parties to how they take their tea, there is a different take on key freshwater issues for each of the members, but there’s no doubt they all share a deep love for Tairāwhiti. And today they’re here to discuss our fertile flats, rivers and bush, all underpinned by one resource: freshwater. 


The Troubles with Our Water


Gisborne faces a multitude of issues when it comes to freshwater. High levels of bacteria often make our rivers unsafe to swim in, depriving us of the simple pleasure of taking a dip on a summer's day. Slash from pine forests finds its way into waterways and onto our beaches, posing risks not only to the ecosystems but even taking the life of an 11-year-old at Waikanae in January 2023. The region's aquifers, a crucial source of freshwater, are under pressure from horticulture. Unsustainable extraction practices have taken a toll, threatening the long-term availability of our water. 


Hope on the Horizon: The Tairāwhiti Resource Management Plan


The answer to these challenges is a review of the Regional Freshwater Plan (part of the Tairāwhiti Resource Management Plan). This review aims to be the turning point for the health of our rivers and a comprehensive blueprint that guides how the region will manage its freshwater resources. This plan aims to address our issues related to water quality, the quantity people take, and everything else. Which obviously encompasses a lot of issues, and takes a lot of work.


The Review's Evolution


Good things take time. Today’s Freshwater Plan can be traced back to 2012. To say there have been bumps along the road would be an understatement. The plan has taken into account thousands of submission points and even some brushes with the Environment Court, High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.


After over a decade of work, 2023 marked a new era in the freshwater saga. Council has been working on the review for the past two years and recently announced our Regional Freshwater Plan. It was then the Tairāwhiti Regional Freshwater Advisory Group was born. 


The group was established to advise the Council from a community perspective. The advisory group will meet a total of 12 times, discussing the likes of our aquifers, forestry practices, and water quality and quantity concerns, completing their work towards the end of 2024.


Te Mana o te Wai: The Guiding Principle


The fundamental principle guiding the review is Te Mana o te Wai, which emphasises the importance of water. Under Te Mana o te Wai, or mana of the water, protecting the health of freshwater is paramount, as it safeguards the environment and the well-being of the community who uses it.


The advisory group is a key part of the review. Their voices are being heard, and their concerns addressed. The review aims to bring about positive changes that the community wants, like cleaner, safer rivers and sustainable aquifers that our growers can access. The result will be safer, more pristine waterways, with better rivers for swimming, fishing and the rest. But like all things, it will take time. A century of degradation cannot be undone overnight.


From Review to Reality


"I'm the generation who can tell the stories of the mahinga kai (a food-gathering place). We used to catch the tuna, we used to catch the whitebait,” says Stan.


“When you've drunk the water from the river, you learnt to swim in the river, you rode your waka in the river. I am the river and the river is me,” says Stan, riffing off a whakataukī from Whanganui.


"Now we're doing all this work, with the restoration that's been done, I think I'll live long enough to see my river coming back to what it used to be and I can go and show my mokopuna where we caught the eels, how to prepare them. 


“Ka tangi te waiata, te weka - We will no longer hear the calls of the weka on the Turanga flats.”


Tairāwhiti’s freshwater challenges are being met with optimism and action. The Freshwater Plan review aims to resolve the region's pressing issues, ensuring that Tairāwhiti’s freshwater remains a precious taonga for generations to come. The community's involvement is pivotal, making it a collective effort to safeguard the region's most vital asset – freshwater.


By Jack Marshall


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