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The Waipara River is a small hill-fed river on the northern fringe of the Canterbury Plains. Its geological and climatic features set it apart from most other hill-fed rivers in Canterbury.
Situated in a warm dry micro-climate, the river is prone to long periods of low flows during summer and autumn that frequently lead to nuisance growths of algae. The presence of limestone and sandstone sediments in parts of the catchment result in waters that are naturally phosphorus enriched.
It is one of the few places in the world where the K-Pg (formally the K-T) boundary, evidence of a comet that hit the Earth 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, is visible. The river’s extraordinary fossil legacy includes huge marine reptiles inside giant ‘geological pearls’ known as concretions, as well as huge shells, the bones of ancient penguins, and teeth from enormous sharks.
The mouth of the river is an important breeding ground for rare and endangered birds wrybill, black-fronted tern, banded dotterel, and bittern. A 2000 assessment by the Department of Conservation ranked the river mouth and hapua (coastal lagoon) as being of national to international significance for threatened species, with more than 10% of the total population of the threatened species present. Along the upper tributaries are several vulnerable and endangered plant species.
Māori have long held an association with the Waipara River as it was once a significant mahinga kai and was part of the trading routes along the coast. Urupā (burial sites), waahi tapu (places of particular significance to local Māori that hold an element of sacredness), and waahi taonga (culturally, spiritually, physically and historically significant items) in close proximity to river.
The river and associated coastline was a significant mahinga kai, with kai moana (sea food), particularly paua, being taken at the mouth. The tūpuna had considerable knowledge of whakapapa (genealogy), traditional trails and tūranga waka (places for gathering food and taonga), ways in which to use the resources of the river, the relationship of people with the river and their dependence on it and tikanga (customs) for the proper and sustainable utilisation of resources.