Touchstone - a community project for Lake Wanaka

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 19 October 2017

‘Love my backyard’ is the theme for Conservation Week this year – and for the community in and around Wanaka, that means loving the beautiful lake that’s part of their wider backyard.

Lake Wanaka seen from Roy's Bay

Lake Wanaka is New Zealand's fourth largest lake. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

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On a beautiful spring day the Wanaka waterfront is a busy place. Tourists wander up and down the beach, taking photographs of themselves, of the famous partly submerged willow tree and of snowy mountains.

In Roy’s Bay, a lone wet-suited swimmer braves 11 degree water as she follows the line of orange buoys that mark the edge of the swim lane.

Several kayakers carry boats down to the water, and local journalist and lake swimmer Marjorie Cook comments that this part of the foreshore is now so popular that locals call it “multisport corner.”

Doug Robinson, Jackie Boyd and Marjorie Cook

Doug Robinson, Jackie Boyd and Marjorie Cook are keen members of Wanaka Lake Swimmers. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Marjorie, Doug Robinson and Jackie Boyd all belong to the Wanaka Lake Swimmers group, and for the past three months they have been collecting water quality data for a citizen science project run by the Touchstone Project, with funding from Curious Minds.

They were all keen to collect data because they had begun noticing changes in the lake and wanted to know what was happening.

Marjorie says she swam in the lake as a child, and remembers how shiny the rocks and pebbles on the lake floor were. “There was this brilliant jewel-like quality to it.” Now, she says, “they have lost their sparkle.”

Doug – who braves the lake’s chilly waters without a wetsuit – says he was increasingly coming back from swims covered in the invasive algae known as lake snow (also called lake snot, or Lindavia intermedia).

They weren’t the only Wanaka residents concerned about the lake and its water quality.

Touchstone founders Eddie Spearing and Chris Arbuckle.

Touchstone founders Eddie Spearing and Chris Arbuckle have a shared love for Lake Wanaka. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance


Touchstone began in 2015, as the result of a conversation between local designer Eddie Spearing, environmental consultant Chris Arbuckle; it soon expanded to include sustainable farm consultant Erica van Reenen.

The trio recognised there were problems – and were keen to build a ‘collaborative community environmental project’ that would enable ‘local people to effect local change.’ They also wanted to bring urban and rural residents in the Wanaka catchment together, and realised that Lake Wanaka was a common ‘touchstone’ for everyone.

Chris wants to encourage the community to ask questions and then look for their own answers.

He explains that Touchstone currently runs three projects. ‘Freshwater beasties on drains’ focuses on storm water runoff, and is run by the local primary school.

‘What are we swimming in’ sees Wanaka lake swimmers collecting water quality data, and water samples that are sent to Hills Laboratories for testing. They are three months into a six month project, and are focusing on collecting baseline data in popular Roy’s Bay.

‘The Wishbone Falls stream and wetland planting’ is funded by Fish and Game, and involves local Forest and Bird members joining with farmer Randall Aspinall to plant a wetland area next to a popular short walking track that crosses his farm.

Randall Aspinall in the Wishbone Falls wetland.

Randall Aspinall in the Wishbone Falls wetland that will be replanted with help from the Wanaka community. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Head of the lake

Randall is a fourth generation farmer on Mount Aspiring Station, an extensive sheep and beef station at the head of the Matukituki River, next door to Mount Aspiring National Park.

He is part of the Wanaka Catchment Group’s catchment-wide farm environment project, which aims to ensure that water leaving all the farms up-river of the lake is as clean as possible.

Randall says that the environment underpins every decision he makes on the farm.

“I guess for us the lake is the touchstone, the marker of what’s happening upstream.”

He thinks the best results will come from small changes made by everyone around the lake. “A lot of ours is just little changes, like these wetland areas and fencing of some of our more sensitive waterways.

“For a lot of places in New Zealand, but definitely around here, if everyone just tried to think about the environment a bit more with the decisions they’re making we can probably make some decent gains without needing to spend huge amounts of money or huge amounts of time.”

The road up the Matukituki Valley runs through Mount Aspiring Station.

The road up the Matukituki Valley runs through Mount Aspiring Station. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

A cleaner stream

Touchstone has already notched up its first success. For years the small stream running into Roy’s Bay had been nick-named Stinky Stream by the lake swimmers, and was filled with slime and algae.

When Chris decided to take a closer look, he quickly found what appeared to be raw sewage flowing into the stream from a nearby house. Water sampling returned a very high reading for faecal coliforms.

The Otago Regional Council acted quickly to fix the problem, although Chris says it will take a while for large quantities of residual nutrients in the stream to clear.

Excessive algae growth in small urban stream.

Excessive algae growth in this small urban stream flowing into Lake Wanaka was due to nutrients from mis-piped raw sewage. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Jackie says “it is quite rewarding to be doing something, after having those conversations a year ago about ‘we’ve noticed all of these changes but what can we do, we’re just swimmers?’  And then to be actually involved, doing something valid and fixing something so quickly was very rewarding.”

Eddie is quick to add that “we shouldn’t even think that the lake is in any way dirty. It’s pristine – you can drink it.” And that’s just the way that Touchstone intends to keep it.

Further information

Lake Wanaka's crested grebes are another local success story.

RNZ investigated water quality in its Water Fools? series.

Te Kakano Aotearoa Trust of Wanaka recently received a $350,000 Freshwater Investment Fund grant to create a Lake Wanaka community catchment plan.

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