The dream of cleaning up the Arawhata Stream and Lake Punahau/Horowhenua is a step closer to reality.
It is the result of a big joint effort by iwi, farmers, growers, and councils who came up with the ultimate solution dealing with polluted stormwater out of Levin and nitrogen and nitrate run-off from farms and vegetable gardens that have turned the lake into a murky pond over the past decades.
Horizons Regional Council this week bought a farm situated adjacent to these bodies of water that stretches all the way from Lake Punahau to Lake Waiwiri. On that land a wetland will be established that will finally bring the dream of clean streams and a clean lake to fruition.
The 142ha block of land was acquired by the regional council for $6.75 million, with $5.6m of that coming from central government's Jobs for Nature funding.
This wetland plan is the result of some long-term planning by a large group of interested Horowhenua people and businesses, including iwi, farmers, and vegetable growers, and involved lobbying of central government by local and regional councils to obtain the money for it.
Woodhaven Garden director Jay Clarke said it all began as a kernel of an idea one day, at Woodhaven Gardens, three years ago.
"We sat In the office staring at a map of the Hokio Drainage System."
The idea and discussions about it soon ballooned to a big plan involving scores of other people, from the lake trustees to councils, Muaūpoko and other farmers and vegetable growers as well as environmentalists.
"This is so significant," said former Horowhenua District mayor Brendan Duffy, who led the alliance of interest groups that came up with the final wetland plan. "It is the next step in the dream of so many of us have to improve the health of the lake.
"It is also an extraordinary opportunity for the growers to seize the chance to enhance their growing practices. Congratulations to Horizons for getting the money and hats off to all those groups including growers, led by Muaūpoko, who worked on this wetland plan," he said.
Horowhenua farmer Geoff Kane was the owner of the farm sold to Horizons to create the wetland.
He had been lobbying Horizons for 6-8 months to achieve this. He went in to bat for a five-pronged approach to fix the water quality in both the Arawhata Stream and Lake Punahau/Horowhenua.
"Iwi involvement was a very important aspect of this project," he said.
Add to that shared pathways, a wetland, sediment traps as well as a solution for Levin's stormwater, which will be diverted through the wetland to be cleaned up before going into the lake.
"Horizons has had the foresight to buy the entire farm which will give them enough space to control both sediment and stormwater," said Kane.
He said will be leasing the farm back from Horizons for the next two years as it will take some time to design the wetland and sediment traps and before work on it can begin. Horizons will lead this partnership from now on.
"Woodhaven Gardens has been trying to reduce their environmental footprint for a long time.
"We listen to our community and learnt to look at the bigger picture. We went around the community to harness support, get ideas and involved councils and even ministers," he said. "We started looking at a map of the Hokio drainage system realising how many properties drain into the Hokio drain.
"Shutting down farming and vegetable growing isn't going to achieve cleaner water in the lake. We are only 8 per cent of the catchment. There is much more going on that needs investigating and we realised there was an opportunity for all of us here."
The farm that will become wetland once upon a time was a wetland, according to Clarke.
"The government turned it into a farm.
"We came up with the idea of a small wetland and everyone we talked to liked it. People from Massey University were among those gathered at a marae in Hokio to discuss the idea and together we formed the Arawhata Wetland Alliance, with Brendan Duffy as chair."
The district council was on board and they brought their contacts along. Members also included were: WECA, DoC, and MPI.
The conversation that followed had one goal: how can we improve the water quality in the lake and its catchment while preserving vegetable growing.
Woodhaven Gardens financed a feasibility study and approached Geoff Kane who was immediately on board.
"Geoff Kane was fantastic, he immediately saw the importance of the plan and how crucial his farm was in achieving it. That piece of land is the natural drainage point for the entire area. He was incredibly obliging when we first approached him.
"We soon realised that it was going to be a much bigger project than we had anticipated and millions would be needed to implement it, so we went looking for funding.
"Both the district council and the sustainable farm fund were positive about our plans, but for various reasons couldn't help us. We then took our plan to minister Damien O'Connor … and Covid-19 hit."
The Clarke family seriously considered buying the land and doing it themselves but realised soon that they would not be able to, even if they could afford to buy it.
"Then the Government turned up asking for shovel-ready projects and both the district and regional councils, who knew all about our ideas, offered to put in a proposal as a shovel-ready project. Since Horizons are in charge of waterways the Government decided to pick them as lead for the Wetland project."
To save the plan at the last minute Woodhaven Gardens took a big risk and offered to underwrite 10 per cent of the bill, without which the proposal could not go ahead.
"We believed in this wetland plan so much that we decided to take that risk, which was considerable.
"This plan is a game-changer for Lake Punahau/Horowhenua and for vegetable growers' relationship with the lake."
A bigger proposal was prepared by Horizons, which resulted in the Ministry for the Environment giving $11.6m for the project and Horizons took over Woodhaven Gardens' as guarantor for the 10 per cent.
"This project has such cultural and historical value for Muaūpoko and has great environmental benefits too.
"The wetland will deal with both surface water and groundwater, which feeds the lake, and will remove all nitrogen and sediment from the water. It will make such a difference to the health of the lake."
Clarke said that previous conversations with David Parker had established that even if 50 per cent of vegetable growing and farming were stopped, losing thousands of jobs in the process, and the land turned into native forest, it would only improve the water quality by 10 or 20 per cent.
"About five days a year there is huge rainfall and that generates all the sediment that goes into the lake."
Reflecting back with pride on the past few years he said, "If a community gets behind a great idea and looks at all angles, you can really achieve something. We have proven that."
Clarke hasn't had any contact with Horizons since they took over the proposal in late 2020.
"I hope they will do appropriate community consultation. None of the paperwork has been shared with us."
A spokesperson for Horizons' Regional Council said, "The Governance Group will discuss the pathway for community engagement and consultation at the end of June."
Once that has been decided Horizons will be able to say when they will be coming out to the community for consultation/engagement. There will be a range of avenues for people to be involved and detailed meetings with those that are directly affected (ie. neighbours) by the proposal will be held.
If people do want to get in touch with the team in the meantime then they can contact either Staci Boyte or Logan Brown at Horizons Regional Council. In the meantime, more information on the project can be found here: