In 1956, amid protest from tangata whenua, the Kaituna River was diverted to sea at Te Tumu to in a bid to improve surrounding pasturelands. Six decades and $16.6m later, a major milestone has been taken in a bid to undo the ecological and cultural harm that decision caused.
Dean Flavell is always looking for omens.
Yesterday, the chairman of Te Maru o Kaituna River Authority saw two omens and both were good.
He was among members of the Maketū community and beyond who gathered to celebrate a major milestone in a $16.6m project to undo some of the ecological and cultural damage done by the 1956 Kaituna River diversion.
The re-diversion project, funded and led by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council in co-operation with iwi and landowners, came after four decades of calls for action from Te Arawa and the people of Maketū.
Flavell's first sign came during a dawn karakia at a new 60m wide channel created to divert water from the river into Te Awa O Ngātoroirangi estuary, also known as the Maketū estuary.
The water will pass through 12 new 2.5 by 2.5m culverts with automatic control gates.
"There were mullet jumping on both sides [of the gates]. I take that as a good sign of the environment improving," said Flavell.
The second positive portent came as more than 200 people gathered near the river in a stifling marquee filled with sandflies and open on one side.
The crowd - old and young, officials and residents, fishers and farmers - listened to nine speakers chart the process to return of freshwater flows from the river into the estuary.
About halfway through the speeches, a bright spark partially opened the closed back of the tent, sending a cool breeze rushing through the crowd, to wide relief.
It was a fitting metaphor - and, to Flavell, a good sign - for the main event that followed: the opening of the control gates.
People lined the stopbanks as Maketū's auntie Ruby Tapsell and intermediate school student Gabriel Kerr - the great-great-grandson of a leading figure in the fight against the diversion - together cut the blue ribbon that signalled nine of the 12 gates to rise.
The gates slowly released 600,000m3 of flowing freshwater from the 400mm higher river into the estuary.
As the waters mixed in swirling eddies, paddlers in a waka passed under the flags of Te Arawa strung across the estuary and Reverand Rereamanu Wihapi led the crowd in a chorus of Whakaaria Mai.
"My thoughts when I looked at that was that the current literally personifies the lifeforce coming from the Kaituna into Te Awa O Ngātoroirangi," said Flavell.
Many at the event expressed the hope that the "flushing" effect of the freshwater flows will, in time, improve the ecological balance of the estuary and allow populations of shellfish and finfish - tuna (eels), pipi, kahawai, whitebait - to improve.
Gabriel Kerr, 11, is growing up in Maketū, fishing in the river and estuary.
"You have to be very patient to catch something here," he said.
Father Laurence Kerr, however, was of a generation who remembered when the kaimoana in the estuary was plentiful.
Liam Te Wherowhero Tapihana Tapsell, a Ngāti Whakaue cultural monitor for the project, recalled catching whitebait by the bucketload as a child.
Locals have charted the diminishing birdlife and kaimoana stocks that followed the 1956 diversion, which was done to improve the agricultural qualities of the surrounding pastureland - formerly wetlands.
As project leader Pim De Monchy said: "Yesterday's solutions become today's problems."
De Monchy, the regional council's coastal catchments manager, said he was "stoked" to have reached this day, six years after planning work began.
He said it previously took 15 tidal cycles for all the water in the estuary to be replaced from the river. The culverts would reduce that to two-and-a-half cycles.
The project also included a new boat ramp and recreating 20ha of saltmarsh wetland to filter nutrients and create breeding areas for birds and fish.
A 10-year action to continue the restoration of the area has been christened Te Tini a Tuna - The Many Eels.