Taranaki efforts to improve freshwater win national award

Taranaki community’s mammoth efforts to improve freshwater health at a landscape scale have been recognised by a national award.

The 25-year voluntary work by farmers, iwi, schools and community groups to fence and plant waterways, helping achieve some of the best results in Taranaki’s river and stream health in two decades, earned the 2019 Excellence Award for Environmental Well-Being from Local Government New Zealand.

“This belongs to our community,” Taranaki Regional Council Chair David MacLeod said as he accepted the award in Wellington last night (Monday 8 July7). He says the thousands of people involved have invested “so much sweat, money and time” into fencing and planting rivers and streams on private land around Mt Taranaki since 1993.

The voluntary scheme keeps stock out of waterways, cuts down effluent and nutrient run-off and shades streamwater to encourage native biodiversity.

More than 15,400km of Taranaki streambanks – about the length of New Zealand’s coastline - are covered under the voluntary programme. NIWA scientists say it’s likely one of the largest and longest-running restorative freshwater projects in the world.

The figures are staggering:

  • $128 million programme – 70% funded by landowners.
  • 5.6 million native plants
  • 2,500 properties with a riparian plan including all dairy farmers
  • 13,207 kilometres of fencing on streambanks
  • 6,000 hectares native habitat protected

“This award highlights the power of Taranaki’s community and what can be achieved when people are supported and work together,” Mr MacLeod says.

An independent NIWA report in 2018 found that Taranaki’s riparian protection work to date has contributed to improved freshwater health and a reduction in bacteria levels.

“We’re seeing encouraging results year after year,” says Mr MacLeod, adding that farmers are carrying out the massive project without subsidies.

“We’ve provided plenty of technical assistance and advice – but they’ve funded all the planting and fencing,” he says.

“What’s more, they’ve done so voluntarily. These results haven’t been achieved by a Council rule or the Resource Management Act. They’ve been achieved because our community knows it’s the right thing to do.”

Long-term monitoring shows Taranaki’s ecological freshwater health – the most accurate way of measuring stream and river health – is the best it’s been in 23 years. Extreme weather impacts on river and stream health, leading to seasonal variations, but long-term trends show water health is improving across many freshwater indicators. The latest results are here: www.trc.govt.nz/healthy-waterways-report-2018/

“The results speak for themselves,” Mr MacLeod says.

Paradise restored by farming family

Find out about the Taranaki Riparian Management Programme.

One of the first Taranaki dairy farmers to start riparian planting and fencing in the 1990s was 83-year-old Gordon Symes.

He still lives on the Opunake farm, which is now run by his daughter and son-in-law, Megan and Matt Symons.

“This is our little slice of paradise, but it wasn’t always like this,” says Mrs Symons, who grew up on the farm and has seen first-hand how the water has improved as streambanks have been fenced and planted.

“I can remember trying to cross the river and the rocks would be all slimy and slippery and the water level was low and warm, like unnaturally warm – it’s because there wasn’t the shade.”

“Now it’s a pleasure (since the streambank planting and fencing) that my children get to enjoy this and they love coming here and swimming.”

Mr and Mrs Symons are among about 1700 dairy farms in Taranaki, which all have a riparian plan, with recommended fencing and planting.

Mr MacLeod says Taranaki is well ahead of the national work on freshwater restoration, but the region is not sitting still - work is underway to make riparian planting and fencing compulsory on Taranak’s ringplain around 2020.

“This is Taranaki’s answer to a national concern, but it won’t be solved with a one-size fits all approach. We’re building on a programme that science has proved is working, supporting livelihoods and improving lifestyles.”