As a lad in the 1950s, Jim Jackson played and swam on Onehunga's beaches. He's lived in the seaside suburb, one of Auckland's oldest, most of his life, and his childhood memories are of his mates running down the sand, their parents looking on, yachts sailing in the bay, the wind ruffling the tall seagrasses.
Sixty years on, the boats, families and children have given way to more than a kilometre of rock wall, the motorway to the airport, power pylons, and 305 million litres of treated wastewater flushed into the harbour each day.
On Manukau Harbour's northern coast, Cornwallis was designed in England - it was supposed to be one of the new colony's first cities. Bronwen Turner's family have lived in the quiet, bushclad coves since 1889. From her home she watches orca swimming.
Silt, however, clogs the beaches and estuaries where the Waitakere Ranges meet the harbour.
"I remember that when the tide went out, there was like a lawn of green seagrass when you looked back from Little Huia to Big Huia. There were all kinds of shells you could find on that seagrass. Now it's rotten and silted out.
Big Huia's always been a shallow bay but it's even more so now," she worries.
And to the south, at Waiuku, the outgoing tide has left mud in its wake. Murray McNaughten expresses locals' anguish at the silt and the invading mangroves: "Some of that siltation came from the sandhills on the Awhitu Peninsula, some from urban development. But we suspect quite a lot of it also comes from the further reaches of the Manukau Harbour. In particular, [the former] Auckland City was dumping its rubbish and sewage and anything you care to know in the harbour. Manukau Harbour has been polluted," he says.
Little pools of murky water in the mud cake the narrow neck to the harbour, poignant mementoes of a settlement that owed its existence to water. Maori paddled waka from Onehunga Bay to Waiuku then carried their boats overland to the Waikato River. European settlers declared it a port in 1843 on the country's major trade route between Auckland and Waikato, Taranaki and Wellington.
BRUNT OF PROGRESS
Shallow, tidal, guarded by its treacherous bar, Manukau is the second biggest harbour in the country. It used to be the busiest but, with roads, railways and the airport, the port fell into disuse. Reclamation, sand and other materials from Auckland's steady march south found its way to, and into, the water.
"It has become Auckland's rubbish dump. It's as simple as that. I'd even go as far as saying Auckland has prospered at the demise of the Manukau Harbour and go further and say New Zealand has prospered at the demise of this harbour. We're now at the point of saying we need to turn that around," says Mr McNaughten.
Mangere Wastewater Plant, just north of the airport and facing the exclusive Puketutu Island wedding and convention estate, produces enough wastewater to fill 122 Olympic-size pools every day.
"If we are going to grow substantially as the council plans show, is it still appropriate for us to put that more of that wastewater into the Manukau Harbour? How much can the Manukau Harbour really absorb? Shouldn't we start looking at other ways of dealing with wastewater?" Ms Turner asks.
Watercare, however, contends its Project Manukau remains the biggest environmental restoration programme undertaken in New Zealand. Of Auckland's 20 wastewater treatment plants, it's the most advanced, having undergone a $450 million upgrade, says a Watercare spokesperson.
Between 1998 and 2005 it built a land-based treatment plant that reduced pathogens in the treated wastewater flowing into the harbour by 10,000-fold. In the project 500ha of oxidation ponds and sludge lagoons were decommissioned, allowing 13km of foreshore to be rehabilitated, 13km of walking tracks, six beaches, three bird-roost islands and two bird hides were created, and 300,000 native trees were planted.
But the problem, says Mr Jackson, is that there is no management plan for the harbour. Last winter he, Ms Turner and Mr McNaughten formed the Manukau Harbour Restoration Society "because the Manukau Harbour has no representation within the council system", Mr Jackson explains.
The group, still in its early stages, has a database of 100 people.
Mr Jackson has spent years pushing for the redevelopment of Onehunga's waterfront, resulting in a $28 million proposal for the area.
That project, in the final stages of acquiring consent, aims to re-establish the community's connection to the sea - lost when State Highway 20 was built in the 1970s. 'We're not being an extremist group ... We've got to live in society but we've got to work towards improving the outcomes," he says. "Is it appropriate to put a huge amount of wastewater into an enclosed and shallow harbour? Probably not. We have a methane gas problem. There's no secret about that."
Previously, many sub-councils around Auckland dealt with the harbour's issues, but no single agency.
"The harbour needs a bit of a management system. And maybe the Waitangi Settlement process may just allow that to happen ... and, with the appropriate settlement documents, some of these aspirations maybe achieved," says Mr Jackson.
It was only in the middle of last year that the Manukau Harbour Forum - the nine Local Boards and iwi around the sprawling harbour - was set up to protect and conserve the harbour's natural resources. Chaired by Franklin Local Board's Jill Naysmith, the forum will convene its first "formal" meeting tomorrow.
"Each board has had its own issues around Manukau Harbour. Many of them are similar and we want to get together and get something done about them," she says. "We're determined to do this. It hasn't been done before, but we will find a way."
That's a start. But, as well as environmental values, Ms Turner says the society wants to redefine Auckland's relationship with the seaside that doesn't quite carry the same cachet, or attract as many headlines, as that other waterfront, the Waitemata.
"Onehunga Wharf could be a really good hub for community and tourist activities. If they had all-tide access for boats, we can have charters coming from there," she says. "What people don't realise is that there's magnificent deep-sea fishing the minute you go across the Manukau bar at the harbour entrance."
Charters could run from Onehunga to Cornwallis so people need not drive all the way to the Waitakere Ranges
Regional Park. Unfortunately, the boat ramp at Little Huia - donated to the council by Ms Turner's family - is in terrible disrepair. "Within 15 minutes of launching your boat at Little Huia, you could be out fishing for marlin. There are a lot of guys who would like to take their boats across the bar and go fishing, but the boat ramp has not been maintained," she says.
Mr McNaughten dreams of daytrippers from Auckland to Waiuku taking the route his great-great-grandfather travelled in 1863.
Waiuku used to be a farm service centre and is now a steel mill town. To grow, it needs to reinvent itself, he says, as a tourist destination.
"We've got a lot of attributes, a lot of heritage, a lot of spectacular scenery and a lot of recreational facilities on the west coast, on the river and on the harbour."
The Kentish Hotel, New Zealand's longest-running hotel, which was built in 1851, is just across the street from Waiuku Wharf.
Mr McNaughten has pushed for dredging around Waiuku's downtown wharf since 2004. 'We're hoping to progress that reasonably," he says.
The Mud Larks, a group of retired residents, have begun by pulling up the mangroves. He hopes the port will be revitalised in time to meet the extension of the Glenbrook Vintage Railway to Waiuku.
THE TIME IS NOW
Ms Turner admits major strategies would take a long time but the council should start considering them now.
Amalgamation into one Auckland Council gives them hope. "We're hoping that with that structure, we could get more consistency in decision-making and more forward thinking about how we deal with the harbour. So we're quite encouraged by it," she says.
It's not all doom and gloom, they say. Manukau remains a beautiful harbour.
"But, at the end of the day, Manukau Harbour has been neglected probably for the last 30-40 years," says Mr Jackson. "From that point of view, when you look at what Waitemata gets and the resources they have, we are a really poor cousin.
"We've been treated like second-class citizens for generations and things have to change."
In 1984, the Waitangi Tribunal report on Manukau claims recommended to the Ministers for the Environment and Works and Development: 'Formulation of a Manukau Harbour Action Plan with definite commitments to take positive measures for the restoration of the harbour, having regard to our finding that the deterioration of the harbour seriously prejudices the enjoyment of fisheries protected by the Treaty of Waitangi, and that positive action is needed more than policies of containment to remove that prejudice."
Almost 20 years later, Auckland Council is drafting a "marine spatial plan" for the harbour, among other areas. Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse chairs the plan hearings. She told The Aucklander the plan identifies causes of the deterioration of the environment and sets out actions and directives to address them.
"One proposed directive, with a corresponding action, aims to ensure integrated and sustainable management of marine areas through marine spatial planning for the Manukau Harbour. The action seeks to jointly prepare a multi-objective and multi-party marine spatial plan for the whole Manukau Harbour."
The draft Long Term Plan is open for public submission (closing at 4pm on March 23). "I encourage all Aucklanders, including those who are interested in improving the Manukau Harbour, to take this opportunity to either support the Long Term Plan or let us know what you feel should be changed," she said. "You can also talk to your Local Board over the aspirations set out in local board agreements."
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