The Southland Times

It will be something special when this area is covered in water.

- JAN RIDDELL

Jan Riddell is balancing precarious­ly on a rock at the edge of the Waiau River trying to take a water height and flow reading. ‘‘Some people around here think we are a little bit strange for wanting to put land under water instead of draining it,’’ she quips.

It is a grey Southland morning and Riddell, the Waiau Fisheries and Wildlife Habitat Enhancemen­t Trust planner, is visiting the trust’s Whitebait Habitat Project, at the mouth of the Waiau River in Western Southland.

To the uninitiate­d, the project appears to be little more than a series of ponds among typical farmland dotted with flax and patches of gorse.

However, on a tract of land leased from Meridian Energy the trust has created more than 90 carefully constructe­d ponds across more than six hectares that is hoped will return the area to its original wetland state.

The section of land that we share with a flock of sheep was drained for farming but originally this whole area – she waves her hand across in a wide arc – was open wetlands, Riddell says.

The environmen­t has been significan­tly altered because of the reduced flows of the Waiau River, leading to a dramatic reduction in the spawning and rearing habitats for whitebait.

The ponds have been created to a well laid-out plan.

Riddell makes me take a closer look. As the ponds encroach on the sea and the Te Wae Wae Lagoon they are progressiv­ely sitting at a lower level.

‘‘The water we divert from the backwater of the Waiau River is pumped into the top pond and then gravity does the rest,’’ she says.

Initially the work was experiment­al but was extensivel­y monitored to check if the wetlands were being used as rearing habitat for maturing whitebait.

‘‘Ponds of different sizes and depths have been trialled and most are connected to the tidal lagoon waters, by small channels or low sills, so fish can move in and out of the ponds in response to the tides,’’ she explains.

While there is not a surge of whitebait making a run for the sea, Riddell says with certainty the tiny fish are taking advantage of the trust’s hard work.

The Whitebait Habitat Project is the trust’s second major undertakin­g after its work on the Rakatu Wetlands – located in the lower Waiau River catchment the 278ha property is now a reclaimed natural wetland and provides 9 kilometres of public walking tracks.

The trust began as a low-key organisati­on to mitigate and remedy some of the adverse effects the Manapouri Hydroelect­ric Power Scheme has had, and continues to have, on the fisheries and wildlife values of the Waiau Catchment, Riddell says.

Since its formation in 1996, the trust has slowly built up effective partnershi­ps with land owners along the catchment and the companies who have projects and industry on the river.

‘‘Our field officer, Mark Sutton, has worked extremely hard at getting farmers and other land owners on board during the past 16 years.

‘‘The trust certainly would not have been as effective without the co-operation of those land owners.’’

Tramping through the soggy grass as the wind blows in from Te Wae Wae Bay, Riddell says normally it is Sutton who spends the most time in the field but she jumps at the chance to get out of the trust’s Invercargi­ll office.

Sutton is the one who normally gets his boots dirty. His duties include liaising with farmers, taking water readings, monitoring fish and bird counts and doing maintenanc­e checks. He says many of New Zealand’s freshwater and coastal ecosystems are showing varying degrees of degradatio­n because of activities in catchments.

During the past decade public awareness of the impacts of agricultur­e on waterways has increased, he says.

‘‘Farming has had an impact on the Waiau Catchment so it was important for the trust to engage with individual farmers and Landcorp who have several farms on the river,’’ Sutton says.

The real problems stem from farm streams and small catchments and by dealing with these smaller sub-catchments it contribute­s to the overall wellbeing of the entire Waiau River, he says.

The trust has helped fund and carry out riparian planting along streams to help prevent agricultur­al run-off into the river and built fences to keep stock out of the waterways.

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The trust got a financial kickstart when it was establishe­d with a $5 million fund from the Electricit­y Corporatio­n of New Zealand, now Meridian Energy.

Riddell says through sound investment and targeted spending the trust’s bank balance is still healthy.

‘‘The trust is also always looking at creating partnershi­ps, financial and collaborat­ive with people interested in improving and saving the region’s waterways,’’ she says.

‘‘This is something that all organisati­ons working in the conservati­on field will need to develop.’’

The Green Ribbon Award is a testament to the hard work of the small but dedicated team and an understand­ing board of trustees, Riddell says.

Both Riddell and Sutton agree the continued success of the trust will not be measured by more awards but by continuing to collaborat­e with landowners to protect Southland’s embattled water systems.

As Riddell clears debris from a grate in the middle of the holding pond, the smile on her face suggests it is a job she loves.

‘‘It will be something special when this area is covered in water. The whitebait can hopefully flourish while people can come and enjoy the wetlands,’’ she says above the hum of the pump.

 ??  ?? Reclaimed: The Rakatu Wetlands is an ecological­ly sustainabl­e ecosystem benefiting fisheries andwildlif­e in the Rakatu/ Redcliff area of the LowerWaiau River catchment.
Reclaimed: The Rakatu Wetlands is an ecological­ly sustainabl­e ecosystem benefiting fisheries andwildlif­e in the Rakatu/ Redcliff area of the LowerWaiau River catchment.
 ?? Photo: NEIL RATLEY/FAIRFAX
NZ 626696986 ?? Rewarding work: Waiau Fisheries and Wildlife Habitat Enhancemen­t Trust planner Jan Riddell in the wetland the trust is restoring to create whitebait habitats.
Photo: NEIL RATLEY/FAIRFAX NZ 626696986 Rewarding work: Waiau Fisheries and Wildlife Habitat Enhancemen­t Trust planner Jan Riddell in the wetland the trust is restoring to create whitebait habitats.
 ??  ?? River rejuvenati­on: The Whitebait Habitat Expansion Project at the Waiau Mouth, is gradually filling and will provide valuable rearing habitat for juvenile whitebait that return from the sea each spring.
River rejuvenati­on: The Whitebait Habitat Expansion Project at the Waiau Mouth, is gradually filling and will provide valuable rearing habitat for juvenile whitebait that return from the sea each spring.
 ?? Photo: NICOLE GOURLEY/ FAIRFAX NZ
626684033 ?? Winning work:Waiau Fisheries and Wildlife Habitat Enhancemen­t Trust plannerJan Riddell explains howthe trust’s work is helping increase whitebait numbers at the mouth of the Waiau River.
Photo: NICOLE GOURLEY/ FAIRFAX NZ 626684033 Winning work:Waiau Fisheries and Wildlife Habitat Enhancemen­t Trust plannerJan Riddell explains howthe trust’s work is helping increase whitebait numbers at the mouth of the Waiau River.
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