Rakitata River revival: restoring a river’s natural character and mauri

Department of Conservation —  05/09/2023 — 2 Comments
Note: Rakitata is our preferred name for the Rangitata River as it recognises the local Kāi Tahu 
(Ngāi Tahu) dialect, which replaces ‘ng’ with ‘k’. 
The mouth of the Rakitata River.

An ambitious programme to revive the Rakitata River is seeking public input on a strategy to restore the mauri (life force) of the river.

The Rakitata River revival strategy sets a vision for achieving a healthy river from its source in the high Southern Alps to the coastal hāpua. It was informed by scientific research and mātauraka Māori and has been brought to life with inspiring illustrations of vibrant, restored ecosystems. While the strategy is non-statutory (not legally binding), it is intended to be a partnership with the community to prioritise actions to revive the river.

Specific actions are proposed to revive the cultural, environmental and economic aspects of the river for six distinct sections along its length: hāpua, coastal, lower river, foothills, high country and headwaters.  

An illustration of how a restored coastal hāpua could look | 🎨 Mark Neilson.

Severe flooding highlighted need for a re-think 

Karl Russell, Arowhenua kaumātua and co-chair of the programme’s working group, says the severe flooding in 2019 was a catalyst for action to restore the mauri of the river. 

Flooding in 2019 saw the river channels spread over a wide area, including Ferry Rd (right photo) | 📷 Environment Canterbury.

“That event cut the South Island in half for 3 days by taking out the road and rail links. It triggered a lot of emotions from mana whenua and the community as well as highlighting the issues from a political perspective.  

“I think we all realised we couldn’t keep using the same methods to manage the river because they weren’t working. We saw it as an opportunity to retrieve some of our mana and whakapapa, and to restore the connections and kōrero that had been lost.” 

Karl Russell, Arowhenua kaumātua and co-chair of the Rakitata River revival programme’s working group.

Braided river and its species are suffering 

Brad Edwards, DOC river ranger and working group co-chair, says the strategy aims to strengthen connections and collaboration between the people who interact with the river in many different ways.

“The Rakitata is a huge braided river system and an iconic Canterbury landform. Braided rivers are rare internationally. Their channels swing and move around naturally with flooding, as we saw in 2019, and this dynamism is important to protect.”  

He says rivers across Aotearoa, and braided rivers in particular, are suffering from encroachment and intensive land use. The Rakitata is no exception. 

Left: Brad Edwards, DOC river ranger at Kirikiri Springs restoration site.
Right: Brad and Karl at the front of Te Hapa o Niu Tireni.

“Over time we’ve boxed the river into an unnatural course, and moved our farming and infrastructure out into it. This has reduced the river’s ability to create new habitat for wildlife and taoka (taonga) species and affected its shape and functioning.” 

Brad is concerned about the dramatic decline in birdlife revealed by regular monitoring in the last 7 years.   

“There’s been a reduction in the number of endangered black-fronted terns and black-billed gulls that used to nest in the lower reaches. At the same time, we’ve seen an increase in weeds and predators. I fear some of our treasured taoka are starting to disappear.”

Threatened black-fronted tern eggs and superbly camouflaged, freshly hatched wrybill chicks | 📷 DOC.

Working together to reverse the declines

Brad says all the project partners have engaged in courageous conversations about how the natural state of the river system has been altered.  

“When we look at the river with fresh eyes and acknowledge the damage that’s been done, we can work together to start to reverse some of these declines.” 

Karl believes a focus on the long-term health and wellbeing of the awa is fundamental for building a new future together. 

Left: The Arowhenua shadehouse is part of a Jobs For Nature-funded project to propagate natives for replanting in the catchment | 📷 Brad Edwards. 
Right: Members of Te Kete Tipuranga O Huirapa preparing to plant at McKinnon’s Creek/Ōtakitane | 📷 Brad Edwards.

“When the river’s needs come first it means that the environment is taken care of and biodiversity is taken care of. We gather around the table for conversations that ask what the river wants and needs, who can use it and who should be around it.” 

“The strategy we’ve developed brings those conversations into play. We will have respect for each other when we acknowledge everyone’s needs and wants. But the biggest need is the environment and that must come first.”  

“My hope is that the wider community will look at the Rakitata from a different perspective – not just as a waterway, but as a place that creates life and wellbeing for everyone around it. A place where we can be at one with the environment.” 

Karl Russell and Phil Brownie, former Jobs for Nature delivery manager, at a replanted wetland site in the lower river | 📷 Brad Edwards.

Find out more and have your say 

The Rakitata River revival strategy consultation is open from September 4th to October 2nd 2023. Read the strategy and give us your feedback here.

More about the project 

Ko te Whakahaumanu o te Rakitata Awa, the Rakitata River revival programme, is working to restore the mauri (life force) of the river, ki uta ki tai (from mountains to sea). Its vision is a healthy braided river ecosystem where native taoka (treasured species) are abundant and healthy, and people and communities can connect and thrive.  

The programme began as a partnership between Te Rūnaka o Arowhenua and DOC’s Ngā Awa river restoration programme, and now includes Environment Canterbury, Toitū te Whenua Land Information New Zealand, Central South Island Fish & Game, and Timaru and Ashburton District Councils in a landscape-scale collaboration.   

Many agencies and groups have been working to restore parts of the catchment for decades, with sustained predator and weed control, and significant remediation work after the 2019 flooding. This project has benefited from two large Jobs for Nature grants, which are supporting a native plant nursery, fencing and pest and weed control. The immediate repairs to infrastructure after the 2019 flooding were supported by COVID-19 shovel-ready funding, which also funded further enhancement work at those sites. 

2 responses to Rakitata River revival: restoring a river’s natural character and mauri


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