A recent report commissioned by a Far North iwi suggests despite its popularity, one of Ahipara's most significant waterways may not be a safe swimming location.
Te Rarawa announced last Friday that test results had confirmed the presence of faecal coliforms in the Wairoa Stream as well as harmful levels of metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead and zinc.
Ahipara Takiwā - a local kōmiti (committee) focused on environmental protection, restoration and management - said based on the report and alleged lack of action from both Far North District Council (FNDC) and Northland Regional Council (NRC), they were advising people to refrain from swimming in the stream or near its entrance.
Environmental scientist Dr Jacquie Reed said she was surprised and concerned by the results.
"They are really toxic levels ... these levels of bacteria cause harm, and the effect is acute," Reed said.
"Ninety-eight per cent of the water coming into the stream above the school has human waste faecal coliform in it at a very high level.
"It also has leechate from the landfill, which means that we have high levels of highly-toxic metals.
"This is really significant. It means that some of the things happening upstream are not working."
Some locals said skin and eye infections, earaches, and stomach upset were also not uncommon occurrences following a swim in the stream.
The Ahipara wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), as well as a capped landfill, are located in a small subcatchment of a tributary that discharges into the Wairoa Stream around 800 metres upstream from Ahipara School.
Te Rarawa engaged Streamlined Environmental and Wai Kōkopu Consulting to investigate whether the WWTP, its associated constructed treatment wetland (CTW), and the capped landfill could be having adverse effects on the Wairoa Stream.
According to the report, over a five-year monitoring period - from 2016 to 2021 - the Ahipara WWTP was moderately or significantly non-compliant (as defined by the council) 59 per cent of the time and the landfill non-compliant 22 per cent of the time.
Haami Piripi, chair of Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa, said the report had confirmed the iwi's fears.
"This has increased anxiety for the ongoing utilisation of the river by our community," Piripi said.
"Today dozens of youngsters continue to swim off the bridge all year round.
"Their exposure to harm has significantly increased by the violation of te Wairoa through pollution and this is also true for the river mouth where many locals swim both in the river and off the beach."
Furthermore, the report also found oxygen levels occurring at the tributary were cause for concern for aquatic macroinvertebrates and fish.
"It's not enough to sustain life," Dr Reed said.
The Wairoa Stream is especially important to Te Rarawa for gathering kaimoana and swimming, but Roma marae chairman John Paitai said the river was much more than that.
"It's a tūpuna (an ancestor) to us," he said.
"The immediate priority is to get the message to tamariki swimming in the river that it was not safe to do so."
Ahipara Takiwā is taking a layered approach to spread awareness about the report's findings, with pamphlets already dispersed throughout Ahipara and upcoming signage at the bridge and education work at Ahipara School.
"We will put signs here to warn people," Paitai said.
"But we can only warn them; we cannot stop them."
Paitai also said FNDC had been relying on tidal conditions to dilute what was in the river.
In a letter to concerned groups, FNDC CEO Blair King said monitoring by NRC had shown the need to investigate disposal to land rather than direct to water, and reduce the volume of landfill leachate entering the wastewater treatment plant.
"Far North Waters are currently working on a solution to keep leachate volume within consent limits," King wrote.
"FNDC looks forward to meeting about the issue."
In a separate written comment, King said the oxidation pond system needed upgrading to meet consent conditions, and the council had budgeted for an Ultra-violet system (UV) to reduce faecal coliforms.
He went on to say the system was being procured for installation early in the new financial year, which begins on July 1.
However, according to a recent TV1 News segment, the plans to install a new UV system were news to the local hapū, who claimed it was the first they had heard about it.
Rūnanga delegate Tui Qauqau Te Paa claimed there had been no relationship with the council, apart from a meeting in 2021 before King became CEO.
"We had a hui with FNDC last year and it was very patronising," she said.
"This argument about not having enough money doesn't make sense," she said.
"What is the environment worth?"
Qauqau Te Paa added that enforcement by NRC is an issue.
In a written comment from NRC, group manager of environmental services Jonathan Gibbard said the council had agreed to meet with hapū / kaitiaki representatives on site to discuss their concerns.
Qauqau Te Paa is optimistic about the potential of composting toilets and stormwater collection, which when implemented by many people can make a meaningful impact.
"I'm hopeful we can swim here in five or six years," she said, with her 7-year-old granddaughter Ramari at her side.