Healing the Mataura (Mata Ura) River: an indigenous approach to river restoration

By Mollie Lyders

The Mataura (Mata Ura) River holds a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons. In particular, the flowing water carries an immense amount of cultural significance and history, while also providing meaningful habitat to our endemic wildlife. Our awa (river) was not only a place for practicing mahinga kai (all-inclusive term referring to the ability to have access to resources for food gathering), but it was also used as a trail, a border, and a place for seasonal settlement. Ngāi Tahu (iwi/tribe of most of Te Wai Pounamu/the South Island) are the iwi with the Mataura River in their takiwā (area). The peoples of Ngāi Tahu were known to move around Te Wai Pounamu seasonally, following great food sources. The Mataura River was once considered especially rich in nutrients and biodiversity, providing food security for the people of Ngāi Tahu.

Mataura Falls Before Development

The awa, based in Murihiku (Southland) of Aotearoa (New Zealand) stretches 190 kilometres, rising from the base of the Eyre Mountains to its mouth in Fortrose (Uretura). It is known today to be a trout fisherman’s dream, both nationally and internationally (this is reiterated by the Mataura River being put in a Water Conservation Order in 1997 in order to protect trout), and many enjoy recreational activities such as swimming, jet boating, birdwatching, and camping along her banks. When water quality allows, I enjoy swimming in the awa with family and friends, although it is not as often as I’d like due to pollutants and bacteria such as E.Coli and fecal coliform. Unfortunately, it is essential to check water quality status from Environment Southland before swimming.

The Mataura River is also now used as a sought-after resource for agricultural, urban, and industrial uses as it is a primary fresh water source for dairy farms and can be the source of fresh water for the Gore and Mataura townships in the dryer months. In the township of Mataura, the river (at the falls) is divided by a U shaped weir into diversion channels known as ‘hydro races’. This is for the purpose of creating hydroelectricity — in 1891 the river was dynamited to create hydroelectricity which resulted in the size of the waterfall being significantly reduced. The awa also takes on discharge from industry such as the meat works and runoff from dairy farms, and is vulnerable to wastewater from the Gore townships wastewater ponds during times of flood. The beautiful awa faces a lot on the journey from mountains to sea (ki uta ki tai).

Through the changes of time, what once was a great food source and taonga for the people of Ngāi Tahu (iwi/tribe of most of Te Wai Pounamu/the South Island) is now known to be one of the most polluted rivers in Aotearoa. Due to primary production, land and recreational use changes the great river has drawn the short straw where its health and the health of its inhabitants is no longer prioritized. It feels as though many in the area feel as though they have a right to take from the river but no obligation to heal it. The suffering of the Mataura River is having a harmful effect on not only mana whenua (groups that have historic and territorial rights over the land) but also community members.

Sitting down at the base of Te Au Nui Pihapiha Kanakana (the Mataura Falls) and looking at the falls it is hard to feel a connection to what my tipuna (ancestors) would have been looking at. My Nana told me she remembers her father easily catching kanikani (kanakana or lamprey) for food. Now, as impressive as it is still to look at, it is not as it once was. Surrounded by the lights and smells of industrial uses I do not feel a sense of contentment or belonging — more of a sadness that I am detached and anger that I would not feel comfortable eating kai or swimming in this part of the river — and it is a safe bet I am not alone in this feeling.

Regardless of the condition of the Mataura River now, the significance of the awa to the people of Ngāi Tahu remains the same. The clean-up of the Mataura River has to start somewhere and for me that somewhere begins with working for the Hokonui Rūnanga. The Hokonui Rūnanga are one of the 18 Papatipu Rūnanga as part of Ngāi Tahu. Papatipu Rūnanga are the home of Ngāi Tahu identity and the seat of our traditions, located predominantly in our traditional settlements.

The Hokonui Rūnanga are working with industry to undertake multiple projects to improve the quality of the Mataura River. This includes:

  • Elver (juvinielle eel) trap and transfer — assisting elver that cannot make it over the Mataura Falls for seasonal migration due to the weir and hydro tunnels used by industry
  • Kanakana monitoring — monitoring the habits of kanakana to to establish where and when they are migrating and whether industrial uses are hindering their ability to do so
  • Tuna (eel) monitoring — establishing whether or not the hydro tunnels are hindering the ability of tuna to migrate

The Establishment of a Mātaitai

A Mātaitai reserve is a fish management tool that is developed and managed by tangata whenua (local iwi). They recognize and provide for the special relationship between tangata whenua and their traditional fishing ground and non-commercial customary fishing. Mātaitai reserves do not allow commercial fishing in order to protect the fish species in that area. The Mātaitai in Mataura was opened in 2006 and was the first fresh water reserve in New Zealand. The driving force behind this was the late Rewi Anglem, Hokonui Rūnanga kaumatua.

There are also ways for farmers and people with properties bordering the Mataura River to reduce the impacts of land use practices on the river. The hot topic in Aotearoa at present is the changes farmers will have to make to their practices to ensure the quality of water does not diminish further. As much as there is political anger surrounding the topic it is important not to lose sight of the goal — a clean awa for future generations. One way to start this process — and start reconnecting with nature — is by planting native trees along the riverside. Planting along fenced sections of the river (riparian planting) would work as a filter, to filter out sediment and nutrients before entering the waterway. Trees can also provide habitat for native species and shade which help to cool the water down. Unfortunately during the summer months on the Mataura River (as well as many other rivers in New Zealand) there are often cases of cyanobacteria algae. This algae can be toxic to humans and animals and occurs when water temperatures are warmer than usual and there has been little rainfall. With more shade provided it could reduce its chances of this happening. Thankfully there are many community groups getting on board with this way of thinking — groups such as Thriving Southland and the Pomahaka Water Care Group are great examples of this.

Mataura Falls Today

Although, right now, it feels like standing at the bottom of a mountain looking up at all the work to be done, I dream of a river that my future children and grandchildren will be able to swim, practice mahinga kai and feel a connection with their tipuna without worrying about their health.

Mollie Lyders grew up in Murihiku, Aotearoa New Zealand working in the agricultural industry and travelling before beginning to work for the Hokonui Runanga in the Kaupapa Taiao team. The Hokonui Rūnanga Kaupapa Taiao programme was formally established in 2020, building on previous environmental work undertaken by Rewi Anglem and his team. The purpose of the programme is to ensure that the Hokonui Rūnanga increases capacity to exercise kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga across the takiwā of the Hokonui Rūnanga with a focus on Mātauranga Māori and a management approach aligned with the principal of ki uta ki tai (mountains to the sea). https://www.hokonuirunanga.org.nz/kaupapa-taiao/

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