Efforts to save the Gulf begin upstream | Sustainable Coastlines

Concerns for the state of the Hauraki Gulf unite philanthropic trusts to invest in long-term solutions in the Waihou-Piako catchment.

Take a look at the Firth of Thames on a map. At its bottom right you’ll see it has a little tail, the Waihou River, and next to it (you might have to zoom in), is the Piako River. These two rivers make up the Waihou–Piako catchment — a vast landscape of 3,743 square kilometres that drains into the Hauraki Gulf. Sustainable Coastlines is one of many groups spread across the region working hard to improve the health of these awa.

When you cross the Kopu Bridge (that’s right, the one you have to hold your breath over on family holidays), and look down, the water is coffee-brown. It doesn’t start out that way. In fact, the Waihou starts life as some of the clearest water in the world — you can visit the famous Blue Spring in Putaruru, close to the river’s source in the Mamaku Ranges. The Piako River begins near here, draining the ranges west of Matamata.

Where the Piako and Waihou Rivers meet the Firth of Thames (top right)

By the time these two awa wend their way through the Waikato countryside, they are loaded with sediment and pollutants picked up from the pasture used predominantly for intensive dairy farming. Each year, these rivers deposit more than 185,000 tonnes of sediment into the Hauraki Gulf, a precious body of water that many groups are desperately trying to save.

Sediment is just one of the threats to the gulf, but it’s a significant one. It smothers the seafloor for many miles from the mouths of these awa, altering the sea for humans and marine creatures alike, and stifling intensive efforts to restore the mussel beds that once carpeted the Firth of Thames. According to the Hauraki Gulf Forum’s State of our Gulf 2020 Report, excess sediment is the third highest threat to Aotearoa’s marine habitats.

The coffee-brown Waitakaruru Stream, a major tributary of the Piako River

For Sustainable Coastlines — and many of the existing groups working in this area — the key to improving the quality of this water is restoring the riparian ecosystems in the catchment. This requires a large-scale, multi-generational approach that deeply engages the community, which is the basis of the charity’s Love Your Water programme.

Now, thanks to the support and vision of The Tindall Foundation and Simplicity Foundation, along with Trust Waikato, Sustainable Coastlines can expand its efforts in the region, helping communities to plant and care for native flora in riparian zones, as well as learn to monitor and report on the health of the ecosystems in their local area.

“Simplicity Foundation is really happy to be able to help support the next phase of this important planting programme, working to help improve the health of our precious Hauraki Gulf,” says Simplicity Foundation manager Rebecca Roberts.

“Simplicity members have identified improving the environment as one of our key giving pillars and we’re glad we can help Sustainable Coastlines drive the long-term future impact of this collaborative project.”

Local volunteers at a Sustainable Coastlines tree-planting day, Morrinsville, 2021

Sustainable Coastlines programme coordinator and Waihou–Piako catchment manager Natalia Groom says that philanthropic funds will be a big boost to efforts in the region.

 “It’s awesome that these funders have recognised what we’ve achieved so far with Love Your Water,” she says. “Their contributions will pay for things like equipment, seedlings, and staff costs, meaning we can run even more community planting days, as well as maintenance days, which will give the seedlings the best chance of thriving.” 

Last year, seed funding from Little Kowhai Charitable Trust managed by Perpetual Guardian combined with funds for plants and equipment from Lion Foundation gave us a solid start despite interruptions from Covid.  

The coffee-brown colour of the waters of the Waihou and Piako Rivers is not inevitable, and the community groups such as the Piako Catchment Forum already working on riparian planting in the region certainly don’t see it that way.

“The better we can support local communities to protect the awa they love, the quicker we can achieve the large-scale restoration work that is so dearly needed,” says Natalia. “Having support from these funds takes us a long way there.”