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Last modified: 01 Nov 2022 8:04am

Two women, one dark haired, one blonde, in water proof trousers and blue University of Canterbury jackets stand in a narrow water way measuring it from one side to the other with a tape measure

An ambitious project to transform drains across the district into thriving streams is making an impact in Selwyn.

Started in 2013 by Living Water - a ten-year partnership between the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Fonterra to improve the ecology and management of drains in the Ararira/LII river catchment – the work has grown into a partnership with Councils and mana whenua to transforms drains into streams – improving drainage, water quality and biodiversity, and restoring mahinga kai. It is hoped the plan could be a blueprint for water network management across the motu.

There are about 76kms of council drains and a similar length of private drains in the Ararira/LII catchment. These drains were constructed from the mid 1800’s to drain the extensive wetlands that surrounded Te Waihora to enable farming and land settlement.

These mostly straight drains, with steep banks, have mainly been managed as drains, with maintenance often through diggers digging out built up sediment. However, the drains are some of the only remaining habitats for indigenous freshwater biodiversity in Canterbury and this process has often meant a trade off with indigenous biodiversity, ecosystem health or Māori cultural practice.

In 2013 the Living Water project was set up between DOC and Fonterra to trial tools and solutions to enable farming and freshwater ecosystems to co-exist, in Canterbury. The focus is transforming the lowland drainage network into healthy waterways. The trials undertaken build on research by University of Canterbury and best international practice.

In 2020, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Living Waters partners and the Council, DOC, and Te Taumutu Rūnanga to apply what’s been learnt to the wider catchment.

A narrow water way with grasses and native vegetation either side and fields beyondThe group formed a working party together with the LII Drainage Committee and Environment Canterbury in 2021 to co-design a plan for managing the whole catchment to meet biodiversity outcomes, restore mahinga kai, improve water quality and continue to provide land drainage.

The outcomes could be game-changing says Sarah Yarrow, National Manager of the Living Water partnership.

“From trials conducted in this catchment, we now know that streams with gently sloped and planted banks, pools and natural rapids, support freshwater species and effectively remove excess water as well as straight, steep-sided and mechanically cleared drains. They can also reduce the contaminants flowing downstream into Te Waihora / Lake Ellesmere in conjunction with good farm management and effective urban stormwater management.”

The plan could help transform the river catchment and wider drainage in the district Selwyn District Council Group Manger Infrastructure and Property Murray Washington says.

“It’s a really positive and innovative partnership getting all these partners round the table to make something that’s great for Selwyn, for farming, for water quality, for biodiversity and transforming these drains into new streams.

For more on the Living Waters partnership and Drains to Streams visit