Driving voluntary behaviour change in a rural community: lessons from the Wharekopae river rehabilitation project

By David Donaldson

Friday February 21, 2020

Rere falls on the Wharekopae river. Source: Wikipedia.

A community-centred project in NZ is helping rehabilitate a polluted but popular swimming river. Working collaboratively with farmers and addressing funding issues has seen widespread voluntary buy-in to fix up a treasured community asset.

“I have been sad to see the changes to our stream; we haven’t seen trout for six to seven years. Cyclone Bola was a big influence, we used to have blue duck in the river all the time — they vanished after Cyclone Bola.”

While New Zealand has a reputation for pristine landscapes, poor waterway management has meant many of its rivers have become increasingly polluted in recent decades.

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The North Island’s Wharekopae river is one of those, suffering high levels of E. coli, originating in the sheep and cattle farms lining its banks.

The Wharekopae is also home to the Rere falls and rockslide, a popular swimming spot for locals and tourists alike — many of whom ignore signs warning that high levels of bacteria make it unsafe to swim.

Families that have lived in the area for generations recall a time when the river was full of fish, eels and other aquatic life. One farmer even used to use river water to make whiskey.

In 2015, the local government — Gisborne District Council — and industry promotion body Beef and Lamb NZ reached out to farmers in the region to start a project with the aim of improving water quality to swimmable standard.

The result has been a voluntary effort with widespread buy-in that is making progress on rehabilitating the Wharekopae.

Making gains

Many farms have completed voluntary ‘farm environment plans’, setting out out a strategy for improving their environmental status over several years, covering issues including nutrient, soil, wetland, livestock, cropping and biodiversity management. With 28 farms having completed plans, there are only a few left along the river banks to bring on board.

Several kilometres of fencing have been erected, excluding livestock from the waterway, water reticulation systems have been installed, farmers are putting in new drinking troughs for animals, and water monitoring has expanded.

The early signs are that it’s making a difference to water quality — though it will take years to see definitive results.

The project has also built goodwill between farmers and government agencies, and prompted positive media coverage of farmers contributing to environmental rehabilitation — the opposite of what they’re used to. The project has even been a finalist in a couple of environmental awards.

Now they’re working on improving biodiversity through native planting, and monitoring bats and native mussels.

How they did it

The Wharekopae River is 30km in length, with a catchment covering 50 sheep and beef farms on steep land. The river is accessible for swimming for most of its length, and is the most popular swimming river in the region.

At the project’s genesis, E. coli levels routinely exceed safe standards at the Rere rockslide and falls swimming areas.

Agriculture is the main contributor to the problem: one cowpat has around one billion E. coli, which is enough to contaminate around one million litres of water.

Initially, Beef and Lamb NZ had a small amount of funding available and discussed several project ideas with the local council, before landing on rehabilitating the Wharekopae.

It was set up with five principles in mind, giving the farmers a significant stake in the outcome:

  • Farmers and farm realities need to drive solutions
  • Whole farm approach
  • Farmers talking with other farmers drives engagement
  • Bringing farmer and technical knowledge together is powerful
  • ‘Let’s feel our way and learn together’

To get the project started, a staff member from the council reached out to a farmer in the target area, and the farmer agreed to host the first community workshop at their house.

This session looked at water quality improvement cases from elsewhere in NZ, heard from a local farmer and a farmer from another region, discussed ideas for how to proceed, and included a farm walk and some sharing of resources. Farmers were asked what they wanted the project to include and how it could work. All landowners whose land impacts on the river were invited to each workshop, plus the wider community via local media and Beef and Lamb’s networks.

The second workshop took place at the local Rere school, introducing farmers to the farm environment plans, and offering help to complete a plan for their holding. It also introduced E. coli research, and asked for volunteers to test water quality on their farms, which two took up, with a third invited to take part.

The third workshop took place on a local farm, and presented initial findings from the E. coli research, introduced the social research and included a farm visit to a challenging site involving a steep slope coming down to a stream, allowing farmers and experts to discuss possibilities on site and test out realistic ideas for change.

Three farms participated in the water quality research, keeping diaries detailing rainfall and farm activities, which were then used to inform the response. This also helped convince those who thought water quality was “not that bad”.

An environmental economist was commissioned to work out which would be the most cost-effective interventions, and the council set up a fund to assist farmers pay for improvements, paying for 75% of each project, with the farmer paying the other 25%.

Regular water monitoring was set up, as were regular communications with farmers and the public about what was happening, including media releases.

The lessons

Farmers have responded positively to the process, with progress being made towards a healthier environment.

New Zealand’s Ministry of the Environment undertook a study to learn about the project and discover what had made it work well.

Success was enabled in large part by the early and meaningful involvement of the local community. One participant told the researchers:

“Everyone is buying into the concept of improving water quality, [Gisborne District Council] haven’t been heavy handed; they have been coming to ask our advice, with no threats. The collaborative approach has been appreciated. The project has created goodwill and a sense of togetherness.”

Convincing farmers of the value of the changes was important — but having that community focus meant farmers spoke to each other about the ideas and how to make them work. As one participant told the Ministry of the Environment researchers:

“To work with farmers, it has to be their idea. Work with them reasonably and gradually; strict rules and restrictions will get their back up. You need to go out to people and work with them.”

This was enhanced by having funding for a community coordinator — someone from the community who has the on-the-ground links to set up workshops and know where and when is best to ensure participation.

One participating farmer told the researchers the farm environment plan has “been good, we are implementing it”, and that they were doing a mix of funded and voluntary fencing. Another said it had allowed them to be strategic in planning and budgeting for farm development over several years. Offering expert assistance in completing the plans was an incentive to get them done, too.

The Rere rockslide. Source: Jmc226 on Wikimedia Commons.

The funding has been important, with many farmers saying they either could not afford improvements themselves, or had no economic imperative to undertake costly alterations for no financial gain.

Indeed, some interviewees questioned whether the project would have occurred at all if the financial incentives disappeared and the farmers were instead subject to regulations.

The farmers also enjoyed receiving positive coverage in the media:

“The media has a huge effect, it is usually very negative. All farmers I know want to protect the environment but we run a business.”

The lessons found by the ministry were:

  • At the heart of the Rere project is the social and recreational value of the falls and rockslide. Connecting water quality improvement with a local treasure supports engagement.
  • It is important to make a strong case for change to farmers, including clear links to farm practices at the outset. Not all Rere farmers were convinced of the need to invest their time and resources in improving water quality.
  • Develop a clear, compelling aim for the project with farmers and the local community, or otherwise ensure that the project aim has high appeal.
  • Prioritise engaging those whose land is closest to the waterway concerned. Target influential farmers and community members to engage with first and encourage them to invite others in.
  • The Rere project affirms the value of taking a farmer-centred, relationship-based, ground-up, positive and collaborative approach. Farmers need to feel respected, valued and part of shaping an initiative in order to engage and build a sense of ownership.
  • Positive interagency collaboration is needed to pool expertise and resources, but collaborators and people to involve should be carefully chosen. Having a strong Beef and Lamb facilitation and engagement role was seen as being key to success — engagement may not have been as high if Gisborne Council was the sole agency inviting farmers to take part.
  • Provide a range of incentives to engage, including access to valued expertise, as well as funding and other resources to take action.
  • The farm environment plan process was a key foundation of this project and plans hold promise as levers for change for better environmental outcomes.
  • Seek to achieve some quick, visible ‘wins’ and maximise the tangible results that can be gained — farmers and agencies need to see momentum and clear changes to stay engaged.
  • Ensure good communication with farmers and keep the media spotlight away until there is something substantial to share. Do the legwork to ensure a positive media positioning. Farmer sensitivities are high around land and water issues and any negative media coverage needs to be avoided.
  • Identify success indicators for the project with farmers and create feedback loops that speak to those indicators. Seek to improve the state of data and evidence surrounding the waterway.
  • Undertake robust water quality monitoring over time and support a learning focus through meaningful evaluation. Educate people about the long term nature of water quality improvement.
  • If including research components, think through the value to farmers and applied practice when scoping this research, and involve farmers in this scoping.

The hope now is to expand these efforts across the catchment — and add to the water improvement efforts happening elsewhere in NZ.

It’s still early days for the Wharekopae, but hopefully someday soon the community will be able to enjoy a healthy river and even see the return of the blue ducks.

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