A Central Otago water group is proving how large-scale collective action can turbo-charge water quality and management.

WAI (Water Action Initiative) Wanaka formed in 2018 from the amalgamation of the Lake Wanaka Trust and the Upper Clutha Water Group and renamed in January 2020. It is taking a whole-of-community and science-backed approach to water quality and management.

Founding committee member and inaugural chair Dr Mandy Bell said that before the launch in 2018 there was a lot happening around water management regionally, but very little was connected.

“So there were a lot of gaps and double-ups.”

Over the first eight months following its formation, the group worked to a lean and strategic framework, creating a vision and roadmap.

“That was really important because we all understood what it is, we’re trying to achieve and have a united and single voice.”

The upshot is a five-year plan (2018 to 2023) funded by a $385,000 grant from the Ministry for the Environment freshwater improvement fund. There was also money from a local bequest, the Million Metres Streams project, the Queenstown Lakes District Council and Otago Regional Council.

The plan has three workstreams: the development of a community-led collaborative water management plan that integrates community, collaborative leadership, consistent communication, and robust science into a framework for water management; riparian plantings; and urban stormwater research.

As part of the plan Bell worked with the RMPP action network to establish five action groups for the Upper Clutha Basin, comprising about 55-60 farms. The $4000 from RMPP for each farm business was pooled to fund facilitation and expertise.

The network was keen to support them on the basis that they were pulling together several catchment groups with a singular purpose.

Each group took a “ground up” approach in coming up with a strategic plan. Interestingly all came back with similar goals of creating a whole-of-catchment environmental plan, individual environmental plans for each farm business, and a platform to communicate with the urban community. They are also working on their own projects which include topics such as water testing, GHG mitigation strategies, and biodiversity monitoring.

Bell’s advice to others wanting to replicate WAI Wanaka’s waterway protection and management approach is to kick start it with some passionate people.

“We found that there are some very talented people with diverse backgrounds and skills who are prepared to volunteer.”

But more importantly take a whole of community approach.

She said the issue of water quality had been rural focused, but all businesses – rural and urban should have an environmental plan.

“Success comes from connecting, communicating, putting in the time and coming up with a plan.”