Step by step, the waterways of Marlborough's Pelorus catchment are being brought back to pristine condition.
When we say "step by step", we mean actual steps – monitors are walking the waterways of the region, on farmland and in settlements, taking note of the baseline water quality and noting problems to be tackled.
It's all part of the Te Hoiere/Pelorus Restoration Project – and this walking 'catchment condition survey' is one of the first actions by a collaborative group bringing together local and central government, iwi Ngāti Kuia and the community to improve waterways health in the region.
The Pelorus catchment is the largest river system to flow into the Marlborough Sounds, with a number of rivers and their tributaries combining to join the sea at the Motueka/Havelock estuary.
To get the project under way, catchment condition surveys have been carried out over the past few months, working with landowners to assess water quality and prioritise action. While much of the upper catchment is native forest, there are also large areas of exotic forestry and dairy and dry stock farming on the lower country.
The Te Hoiere project is a large-scale initiative to improve freshwater quality and community resources, 'ki uta ki tai' (from the mountains to the sea). The main focus addresses the impact of land use, as well as wider conservation goals with environmental, social, economic and cultural benefits for the region's communities, says Marlborough District Council lead, land and water, Pete Hamill.
While there will be some "quick wins" from the initial survey, such as simple fencing or stock-crossing improvements, it will also alert the council to more complex issues which can be worked through by landowners and community catchment groups, with expert support provided.
Urban waterways which run through settlements such Rai Valley and Havelock will also be walked top to bottom.
"It basically means walking up every stream with the landowners who give access and carrying out an assessment. Then we can work out how to get the best bang for our buck, in terms of improving water quality," Hamill says.
Back in the mid-1990s, MDC investigations showed some waterways in the catchment had unacceptable water quality, including high levels of E. coli. Work with landowners to build culverts and fix stream crossings improved the situation but, while overall quality has improved, plenty more can be done.
The Pelorus River is known to many locals and visitors for the popular swimming hole at Pelorus Bridge, midway between Nelson and Blenheim: "People will drive 45 minutes or an hour to get there and go for a swim — it's a really iconic spot," says Hamill.
That section of the river was also used as a filming location for Peter Jackson's film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This branch of the catchment runs mostly through native forest and has high water quality – but other waterways flow through areas of farming and forestry and are not as clean.
"There are waterways which are classified as great, some that are lower than that, and some are marginal," Hamill says. "As a whole, it's fair to marginal; there are definitely areas where we can make a difference."
Hamill says as well as improving water quality, an important aspect is encouraging biodiversity. A colony of long-tailed bats lives near the Pelorus Bridge and the project will support Forest & Bird's pest trapping in the area. Another aim is encouraging the return of whio (blue duck) to the catchment.
"Twenty years ago we had whio living here and now we don't, so it's about how, through predator control, we can re-introduce them and make it a safe place for them to live."
The Te Hoiere/Pelorus catchment has been identified as an "exemplar" by the Ministry for the Environment, as an example for other regions.
"Part of the process is thinking about it being an exemplar catchment," Hamill says. "It's about transformational change and showing what can be done when you get landowners involved, showing their commitment to improvements.
"The people who live there are the ones who benefit from it, and we want to work with them to make it a place in which the community thrives as well as the waterways. We could make the catchment pristine again by just shutting down every piece of forestry and every farm and putting it back into native forest, but that's not the goal.
"The goal is to have a thriving ecosystem and a community thriving as well."