There's a big focus on water quality in the Whangaehu catchment and community groups can now apply for funding to do their bit.

The catchment is having $1.5 million put into improvements over three years. The money is from Government's Freshwater Improvement Fund, from iwi and landowners and from Horizons Regional Council.

A sum of $100,000 has been put aside for community projects - $33,000 for each of the three years.

Bruce Rollinson, a Horizons regional councillor, is the chairman of the Ngā Wai Ora o te Whangaehu Governance Group, which had its first meeting on August 8. Members are from the Conservation Department, Fish & Game, Ruapehu tribes and Ruapehu District Council.

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The Freshwater Improvement Fund application was intended to improvement Raetihi and Ōhakune sewage treatment, Rollinson said. Treated wastewater from the towns adds E. coli, nitrogen and phosphorous to the Mangawhero and Whangaehu.

The council's proposals were to treat sewage to a higher level, then put the wastewater back into waterways. Land-based treatment would have been expensive, with the result less certain in the central plateau's cooler temperatures.

The Environment Ministry was looking for a "step change" - to land-based treatment. It didn't approve that part of the proposal, which reduced the total funding available.

However both Waiouru and Ōhakune have improved their wastewater going into the river. That, kilometres of fencing, and a million trees have reduced E. coli in the Whangaehu by about 10 per cent.

For E. coli it was the most improved river in the Horizons Region last year, and the fourth most improved in New Zealand, winning a Morgan Foundation River Award in November.

Other "pollution" of the Whangaehu is acidic water from Mt Ruapehu's crater lake. Downstream of Field's Track there is more life in the river, Rollinson said. Upstream most of the improvement effort will go into tributaries like the Tokiahuru, Makotuku and Mangawhero.

In a parallel move, good commodity prices are making farmers flush and they are looking to start a Mangawhero-Whangaehu Catchment Group.

Horizons' grant programme will allow local people to be a part of positive change for the river, Rollinson said.

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Applications will be assessed on their environmental benefits, feasibility, community involvement and long-term benefits to the catchment. There is also likely to be a strong preference for "on the ground" work.

Successful groups will be able to get support and technical advice from Horizons.

++Applications for the Whangaehu Catchment community grants close at 4pm on October 23. Information and application forms are available on the grants and sponsorship page at www.horizons.govt.nz.