Pristine and rich with history, Hātea River is Whangārei's green lifeline running right through the heart of the town.
But the river's health has been poor for the past years, and recent numbers show that Hātea belongs to the dirtiest waterways in the country.
From 44 sites registered on online database Litter Intelligence, Hātea River currently ranks as the third most polluted waterway in New Zealand.
The Litter Intelligence database is being overlooked by environmental charity Sustainable Coastlines, which compiles information about the grade of rubbish pollution in New Zealand waterways.
During the latest September survey, 2320 rubbish items were found in a 1000sq m area along Pohe Island Rd. The countrywide average litter density lies well below at 417 items per 1000sq m.
The two places worse than Whangārei are Nelson's Old Boat Ramp with 2556 items and Kaiwharawhara in Wellington with 4560 items found during surveys.
Whangārei's local monitoring group, the Northland Regional Council, said it previously hadn't been aware that the river was ranking badly on a national scale.
"[T]here was little coastal litter monitoring data available for New Zealand before Litter Intelligence arrived," Colin Dall, group manager for regulatory services at the NRC, explained.
However, Hātea River has been on the radar for a while, raising concerns among local authorities and residents because of its litter pollution and bacterial contamination.
The river is short, 17km long, and has a mixture of land uses in the catchment including urban, native forest and pastoral land.
Hātea or Hotea begins as the Waitaua Stream which originates just north of Kamo, and flows southeast through Tikipunga, plunges into the Whangārei Falls, further along to Mair Park and into Whangārei Harbour.
The area around the Whangārei Falls is known as Otuihau to local Māori, referring to the whirlwinds at the foot of the falls.
The area has been a popular spot for family outings and recreational activity since the turn of the century and still is to this day.
While the falls are a prominent swimming site, periodic faecal contamination from wildfowl, sewage overspill and livestock can occasionally make the falls unsuitable for swimming.
Whangārei District Council is attempting to confine the bacterial dispersion. However, data from Land Air Water Aotearoa indicates that Hātea belongs to the worst 25 per cent of all sites in New Zealand regarding E.coli contamination.
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Other than bacterial pollution which derives from environmental and infrastructural deficiencies, litter pollution is caused directly by humans.
"We have found that the main type of litter found at the Hātea River site is a combination of plastics, particularly from food items such as bottles and wrapping," Dall said.
During their September survey, regional council staff found that 69 per cent of the rubbish collected along Hātea was made of plastic, which reflects the national trend at monitoring sites.
Karen Lee, founder of the F.O.R.C.E. (For Our Clean Environment) charitable trust, which organises monthly community clean-ups in and around Whangārei, confirmed that a lot of the rubbish they picked up along the river was plastic.
F.O.R.C.E., with its volunteers, organised two consecutive clean-up sessions last year; one in the aligning mangroves, and one in the nearby bush.
"We picked up over a ton of rubbish – 320kg in the mangroves and 700kg in the bush," Lee said.
"It was mostly food wrappers, drink bottles and lots of plastic bags. It's probably what people have thrown out of their car window and bits of rubbish that have been floating down the river."
Lee said reducing waste in and along the river was important to her and the people she has been working with during the clean-ups.
"We are a harbourside town, and the Hātea is the heart of [Whangārei]," she said.
Being part Māori, Lee said the Hātea was the town's awa, and part of the "whakapapa of our land".
"It's important to treat the river with respect," she said.
The Parihaka Waka Ama Club who go out paddling on the Hātea see the dirty reality of rubbish pollution on a daily base.
Chairman Andrew Priest said litter was a common sight along the river:
"We quite often see bottles floating along, and there's a lot of oil in the water.
"The water is not really nice, but it's not excessively dirty. We try and pick up what we can from the river."
Despite efforts by community groups and council staff to clean up the mess people leave behind, it's an issue to be tackled at its core.
Most of the rubbish people drop on the streets or throw out of their cars will, one way or another, eventually end up in our waterways or the ocean.
Anton Bowker, environmental educator for CBEC Eco Solutions, runs projects in Whangārei schools, community groups and businesses explaining what happens with rubbish that is not disposed properly.
"Most of the litter that is being dropped ends up in the stormwater drain or another low point, like a creek or a river," Bowker said.
From the drain, the rubbish floats down the town's stormwater pipes, which flush out on most beaches along the Northland coast.
Rubbish that ends up in our rivers either travels a similar way towards the ocean causing serious harm to marine wildlife, birds and fish, or it will get stuck along riverbanks and the surrounding environment.
Bowker described litter pollution as a big issue in Whangārei and said people need to dispose of wrappers, bottles and the like in appropriate bins.
"There's never a reason to drop litter. It harms the environment and marine life. Always put rubbish in the bin."
Rubbish pollution in the Hātea River –
Figures by Litter Intelligence/Sustainable Coastlines
September survey: Litter density 2320 (items per 1000sqm), 69 per cent plastic
-mostly glass, ceramic, foamed plastic and food wrappers
July survey: Litter density 2394 (items per 1000sqm), 73 per cent plastic
-mostly bottle caps, cigarette lighters and butts, clothes pegs, food wrappers, and polystyrene insulation
May survey: Litter density 828 (items per 1000sqm), 79 per cent plastic
-mostly bottle caps, cigarette lighters and butts, unidentifiable hard plastic fragments, food wrappers, parking tickets, metal, glass, cardboard, cloth and foamed plastic
February survey: Litter density 1315 (items per 1000sqm), 72 per cent plastic
-mostly rope, bottle caps, lollipop sticks, food wrappers, glass, ceramic, foamed plastic, plastic, metal and wood