“We have to start somewhere,” says Michael Birch, staring down at the muddy water gushing under the bridge. “So we may as well start right here.”

“Right here” is the Taueru River which flows from northeast of Masterton and joins the Ruamahanga River at Gladstone. Streams and creeks from Michael’s own farm feed into it, and the river itself touches many of the properties owned and lived on by the members of the recently-formed Middle Taueru Catchmentgroup. Everyone in this group wants to see the river – and the systems which rely on it, thrive. And some of them have turned up on a blustery July day to set up a water testing programme that will enable them to take stock, make plans and then take action to restore the river’s health.

“We used to swim in this river as kids,” says Richard Hay, gesturing to Micheal and James Deans, another core group member. “There were great swimming holes and groups of people would hang out there.” But over time the banks have collapsed, willows have choked parts of the river, and the deep pools have disappeared beneath trapped silt and tangled debris.

Nobody would want to swim in it at the moment. Heavy rain a week earlier has left the river running high along its banks and with a high level of turbidity. Changing river conditions nis one of the reasons why this WaiP2K water monitoring support programme measures water quality in a variety of ways, over a period of time in variable conditions, at a few different points of the catchment.

Liz Gibson from Mountains to Sea and Tessa Bunny, the WaiP2K Freshwater Technician stand on the riverbank and explain the day’s events after dealing with some health and safety considerations. Today they’ll be showing the Taueru group how to take chemical water samples which are quickly sent to the lab for analysis. They’re also teaching them how to measure and record water clarity, record the invertebrates found, and measure particle sizes of silts, gravel and boulders on the river’s edge. These will be recorded against a set of six testing sites and will be the first of at least four data sets that will be collected over the coming year.

“It’ll be useful to have the data as a benchmark, so when we decide to do certain things to improve the health of the water, then we can monitor changes over time,” says Richard. “You can do all the work, but if you don’t have the data as testament to that, you can’t show the impact.”

Each of the group members attending the first water monitoring meeting have already made changes to their land use practices and done planting to help with stabilising the riverbanks, reducing runoff and providing the water with shade. Each of them is puzzled that all of the 30-or-so locals who have expressed interest in being part of the group haven’t turned up on the first day of action.

“People don’t always see the benefits of acting as a group,” says Michael. “There are so many opportunities to tap into funding and support, and it’s all about stuff that we can take back to our own farms and use individually, as well as have an impact as a group.”

James agrees. “There’s a chance to learn so much by being able to access professional help. For a lot of us it’s starting from scratch so it’s been good to be in touch with people like Richard Parkes (WaiP2K Catchment Communities Regional Coordinator) who’s been involved in a lot of this kind of work and can help us understand the big picture.

“Some people wonder what’s in it for them. For the rest of us, it’s about doing our little bit to increase the health of our river. If you know how it works and what’s going on with it, then it’s easier to fix it.”

The single redfin bully found in the set net amongst the submerged willows, is a welcome sight. Further up the catchment is a healthy population of kākahi|native freshwater mussels which are both threatened and in decline. Migrating bullies carry the parasitic larvae of kākahi back up the river from Wairarapa Moana so they can grow and reproduce. After being admired in a bucket, it’s tipped back into the water to carry on its work, as the group turns back to carry on with theirs.

“Things we do now are going to make a difference here,” says James as he clambers up the bank. “It won’t be in my lifetime. But you gotta start somewhere.”

Story by Ali Mackisack