Ōpāwaho/Heathcote River – (Re)connecting catchment communities

Once a pristine lowland waterway, and an abundant source of food and resources, the Ōpāwaho (or Heathcote River) is currently in poor health. Ed Challies explains how engaging catchment communities will complement council restoration efforts.


The Ōpāwaho (or Heathcote River) is one of two main rivers that weaves its way through Ōtautahi (Christchurch) on its way to the Avon Heathcote Estuary (Ihutai). Once a pristine lowland waterway, and an abundant source of food and resources for Ngāi Tahu, the Ōpāwaho is currently in poor health. While the state of the river has improved since the early 1900s, when it was essentially an industrial drain, there remains much work to be done in restoring the health and mana of the river.    As an urban waterway, which is fed by numerous tributaries draining large commercial, industrial and residential areas, as well as peri-urban land and portions of the Port Hills, action is required at the scale of the wider catchment to address the pressures on the Ōpāwaho.

While the Christchurch City Council is making considerable investment in infrastructure to treat and control stormwater, and in ecological restoration efforts, across the catchment, there is an acknowledgement that these measures alone will not be able to restore the river to a state of health and abundance. There is a need to tap into the vitality and enthusiasm of the diverse communities that live in the catchment, and to (re)connect people to the river and to each other.

The Christchurch City Council and the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management have initiated and supported a variety of interconnected research projects that seek to: understand the history and current state of community action and engagement in the Ōpāwaho/Heathcote catchment; to identify and map communities and activities across specific sub-catchments within the wider catchment; and to investigate approaches to community engagement and collaboration that can support community wellbeing and deliver the environmental outcomes desired by catchment communities. A step change in river health will require some far-reaching changes to behaviours and practices in the catchment on the part of communities – including individuals, households, schools, businesses, community groups, and authorities.

Thankfully there is enthusiasm to embark on this journey, as evidenced in the development of a Community Waterways Partnership Charter by the City Council, Regional Council and community groups, which expresses a willingness and desire to work together and streamline collaboration and support for concerted action on urban stormwater and waterways health. This can build on the impressive efforts of dedicated council staff and community members to date, and help to connect people in caring for our urban waterways.

Ed Challies is Senior Lecturer with the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, and works on water policy and governance, with a focus on community involvement and collaboration in water governance.