Te Awa o Waitao Stream restoration case study: it takes a community to restore a stream

Waitao Stream flows from native forest headwaters into Tauranga Harbour’s Rangataua Bay, crossing the locally iconic Kaiate Falls on the way.

Half of the 3700 ha Waitao Stream catchment is native bush and scrub, with 37% in pasture, 8% in pines and 3% in horticulture. Since 2003, the stream’s riparian zones have been progressively fenced and planted with native vegetation. Restoration was initiated by local hapu, who are landowners/farmers in the lower catchment and own the headwater bush, in response to long-held concerns about the health of the stream and bay. Hinenui and Thomas Cooper played key roles for Nga Papaka o Rangataua in initiating “Te Awa o Waitao Restoration Project” as a collaboration between hapu, NZ Landcare Trust and NIWA in 2002-03. The relationship and project was founded on philosophies of (i) combining mātauranga Maori and contemporary science; and (ii) measuring social and biophysical responses to restoration actions.

Working in an “action research” mode (i.e., science on tap to help meet changing information needs to support action), the results of baseline environmental and community/social monitoring and the restoration vision developed by Te Awa o Waitao were shared with the wider catchment community in workshops in 2007 and 2008. Some landowners had begun fencing and planting their stream banks, and with their new-found connections and common concerns, others came aboard to form the Waitao-Kaiate Environmental Group, now numbering around 15 families. The group runs a native plant nursery to grow locally-sourced native plants, assists landowner applications to Bay of Plenty Regional Council (BOPRC) for funding support, helps with planting days and runs a community notice board. The group also produces community newsletters and organises popular neighbourhood events such as picnics, quiz nights and art exhibitions. All of these activities not only bring the community together but also raise awareness of the individual landowners’ environmental responsibilities while giving the opportunity for the residents to work more collaboratively in the various environmental activities.

Since 2003, 12 stream sites have been monitored, monthly for water temperature, clarity, pH and conductivity and bi-annually for SHMAK macroinvertebrates and fish, by local kaitiaki and NIWA. BOPRC has monitored water quality monthly at a lower river site since 1990 and currently monitor bathing water quality seasonally at Kaiate Falls. Social surveys were conducted in 2004, 2007 and 2011.

Results show improving trends in total nitrogen, nitrate and dissolved reactive phosphorus (all declining). In addition there is improved clarity near the stream outlet and in general water clarity and temperature. There is an increase in SHMAK macroinvertebrate community index values at headwater sites – some of which were directly associated with community riparian fencing and planting actions. There are also recent signs of improved E. coli levels at Kaiate Falls. Social surveys have shown increased local knowledge of the links between stream and harbour health and land activities/management, increased acceptance of riparian management as a mitigation, and increased social capital (“networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society that enable effective functioning“) over the course of the project.

Overall, the project suggests it takes a community to restore a stream and the process can help restore a community.