We are the water, the water is us: A simple start to cleaning our waterways

Department of Conservation —  22/03/2020

Today is World Water Day. The theme this year focuses on water and climate change and how the two are inextricably linked. In this guest post blog, Senior Healthy Waters Specialist at Auckland Council, Adam Schellhammer, explores how we can individually and collectively reduce the impact of climate change by protecting the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.

Common Dolphins
📷: Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari

It’s hard to feel in control these days, and even more difficult to feel like one can make an impact in this world. Global pandemics aside, the greatest threat facing humanity, and the top discussion point in most forums, has been climate change. The term ‘climate change’ gets thrown around often and loosely, is so far reaching and nebulous, that it’s difficult to figure out how to address the problem. 

But when faced with a problem of this scale and complexity I find it valuable to keep things simple. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Or for a more conservation-friendly approach, follow General William H. McRaven’s advice; “If you wanna change the world, start off by making your bed”.

In the simplest terms, climate change will result in a couple of general scenarios: we will either have too much water (extreme precipitation and flooding), or, too little water (extreme heat and drought). Within that there will be a wide range of possibilities. But for our purposes we will stick to the basics; water is the element that connects everything. If we fix our water, we can start to mitigate and curb the impacts of climate change. The good news is that every single person on this planet has the power to make a real difference and take action on a scale that makes sense for them. Starting with your garden and how you manage it.

Let’s look to the catchment of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park as an example, and what people in this area can do to contribute to its health.

Root Systems of Prairic Plants.
📷: Auckland Council

But first, what is a catchment? Put simply, it is an area where water is collected by the natural landscape. Imagine cupping your hands in a downpour of rain and collecting water in them. Your hands have become a catchment. The outside edge of a catchment is always the highest point. Gravity causes all rain and run-off in the catchment to run downhill where it naturally collects in creeks, rivers, lakes or oceans. Some water also seeps below ground where it is stored in the soil or in the space between rocks. This is called groundwater.

Tiritiri Matangi.
📷: DOC

The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park catchment goes as far north as Lang’s Beach, encompassing all of Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula, and the Matamata/Piako District to the south

Hauraki Gulf.
📷: Auckland Council

Anyone who has a garden in this area can help improve the water quality of the Park by doing away with all, or a portion of, the highly manicured lawn we have become accustomed too, and  replanting with native species. This will result in the establishment of deeper root systems and less compacted soil which will be better able to absorb and filter stormwater before it enters our precious waterways. This one simple change can greatly increase your impact on local resources.

Stormwater, unchecked and untreated, can flow overland and pick up pollutants, carrying them into our stormwater system which ultimately end up in streams and then the sea. Think of your lawn as a massive supercharged sponge filtering out nasties like sediment, fertilizers, and petrol residue. The better we can treat stormwater in our own backyards, the better off our waters will be. Not only will you reduce pollutant loads by infiltrating and treating water, you will aid in recharging our underground water resources. This is critical to keep the water flowing, whether it be in the neighbouring stream or in your tap. And if nothing else, this approach looks a heck of a lot better and is way more interesting than your average monoculture of non-native turf grass.

Now if you’re anything like me, you have what we would call a brown thumb and can’t seem to keep any plant alive. But Mother Nature knows better. Native species have adapted and evolved with local conditions and are much better suited to survive and thrive, even if they’re planted by someone like me. The right plant for the right place will bail you out most of the time. Not only will this store and clean the waters coming from your gutters and driveway, but you will have just provided food and shelter for a whole host of native wildlife!  Get to know your garden to best decide what to plant. How much shade is there? Is it getting blasted by the sun most of the day? Is it usually boggy there, or is the clay dry and like concrete? The answers to these simple questions can help ensure that you choose the right plant for the job.

All great challenges seem impossible at the outset, especially as we face other current challenges, but it can always be simplified into smaller and more manageable tasks. Break things down into smaller bits and move forward deliberately and with confidence. If you want to address climate change, clean the water. To clean the water, rethink your garden. So whether you’re ingesting a pachyderm or tackling climate change, start with the basics and focus on what you can do in your own space with the resources available to you. Make your bed and remember Matou Ko Te Wai, Te Wai No Tatou: We Are the Water, the Water is Us!

Interactions of water through the landscape.
📷: Auckland Council

2 responses to We are the water, the water is us: A simple start to cleaning our waterways


    Good stuff, well written