Why working with nature works

The future of our wetlands depends on a collaborative approach and a long-term vision, says Technical Principal – Planning and Environment Stephanie Brown.

Time to play word association. I say it’s just a drain. You say what?

If you’re playing with WSP Technical Principal - Planning and Environment Stephanie Brown you’re more likely to get ‘stream’ as an answer.

“We can’t just ‘engineer’ our way out of problems these days,” says Stephanie, a hydrologist turned environmental planner.

“We’ve tried that. It was never a good idea, but nowadays it’s not even a short-term solution”.

Not that Stephanie is keen on short-term solutions. “Good environmental design is about thinking beyond the now,” she says.

When it comes to our waterways and wetlands, that means working with nature, rather than against it, developing solutions that mimic natural processes and minimise disruption to the environment.

“It’s not about stopping development,” she says. “WSP is an infrastructure and environmental firm. We want to solve problems and build what matters for our clients and communities, but we want to ensure it is done in the right way”.

Stephanie cites the work WSP did alongside the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Tangata Whenua to start the journey of restoring Te Awa o Ngātoroirangi/Maketū Estuary. The work won the Rodney Davies Project Award at this year’s NZ Planning Institute Awards as well as the 2020 Terry Healy NZ Coastal Society Award, and is an example of both the impact of decades of traditional practice and how environmental degradation can be reversed.

“First you divert the river, so you can drain the wetland and turn it into pasture. Then when the pasture floods, as it inevitably will because of where it is, you build stopbanks and drainage networks. Next, you’ve got an estuary that’s choked with sediment and algae and lost valuable habitat for birds, fish, and shellfish along with its significant cultural value.

“Each ‘solution’ is in turn generating further problems. The way to solve those problems is not with another layer of artifice but by as much as possible, stripping things back to how they originally were,” says Stephanie.

While there was broad support for the concept of re-diverting the Kaituna River back into the Maketū Estuary to increase the inflow of freshwater along with the re-creation of wetlands, obtaining consensus on the relationship and balance between environmental, social and economic matters put the scope, options and methodology for the project under intense public scrutiny during the planning and consenting process. The collaborative approach adopted with tangata whenua and the community was critical to its success.

Early signs of recovery are starting to be seen in the estuary with the return of fin-fish, shellfish and various species of birds. It has also generated significant recreational benefits for the local community and has begun restoring the mauri – it will be a long recovery process though.

Back to the drain/stream association.

“There is a strong connection between how we treat the land and the health of our waterways,” says Stephanie. “Our urban waterways have historically been viewed as drainage networks - we turned our streams into drains and pipes. In the process, we’ve filled our waterways, estuaries and harbours with sediment and contaminants and created no end of problems. We might not be able to restore a waterway to its original state, but the potential exists to naturalise such that we improve habitat and biodiversity values.

“As we look to the challenges posed by climate change, it’s more important than ever that we ask how can we work with nature, and how can we work in a way that solves both the problems we’ve created in the past and the issues we will need to manage in the future.”

Our work with water

With more than 200 water consultants – engineers, scientists, planners and landscape architects, the WSP Aotearoa water team provides world class integrated services across the entire water cycle creating what matters for future generations. Our legacy is built from working with municipalities, utilities, and industrial clients through the delivery of a wide range of water-related advisory services; from strategic analysis and project scoping through to design and implementation.

WSP NZ can trace its whakapapa in Aotearoa back 150 years. With this whakapapa and heritage, WSP’s kete holds knowledge from its past and present experience. This uniquely positions WSP to create what matters for future generations and be leaders of this change.

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