For the Māori settlers of central Ōtautahi, living by the Avon River would have been like “living next door to Pak‘nSave”, according to Joseph Hullen, a Ngāi Tahu whakapapa researcher and member of the Matapopore Charitable Trust.
The river and surrounding wetlands, mahinga kai to the Māori, offered up many delicacies, including eel, flounder, whitebait in season, and herring or mullet.
But Hullen wouldn’t eat from the river now. Over time it has “been turned into what I consider an iconic but uniform width and depth drain,” he says.
Matapopore Charitable Trust, the Crown and the City Council are partners in the $116 million Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct Anchor Project.
Part of the project involves restoring and beautifying the river.
“We can’t afford not to do some of this work now otherwise the species that I take for granted, the next generation may never see,” says Hullen.
He takes us to a newly-constructed jetty by the Margaret Mahy Playground, where eels now gather in expectation of a feed.
“When I was growing up, my taua - my grandmother - she lived just across the road here on the corner of Manchester Street and Cambridge Terrace ... I didn’t see as many eels then as I do today.”
Aquatic ecologist Mark Taylor worries though about the hard edges being introduced to the river, including the concrete terraced steps on Oxford Terrace, and their impact on fish. Seven species live in the Avon.
“The thing about the hard banks is that they lack the natural refuges for fish,” he says.
The environmental impacts of the central city rebuild are also a concern for many who care for the water quality.
“We still have direct stormwater inputs going into the river and they're going to limit the potential for the river,” says Taylor.
Hullen adds: “The de rigueur form of cladding lately seems to be copper and zinc. Both react with water ... heavy metals find their way into the river.”
Hullen is proud of Ngāi Tahu’s newly-installed filtering rain garden at its new development on the former King Edward Barracks site.
And what of the river environs? Landscape architect Di Lucas would like to see wetlands re-introduced in the central city, and more native plantings.
“If you imagine kahikatea forest growing alongside the river, a massive planting of native beech, bellbirds, tui, wood pigeons nesting in the trees. It adds that point of interest so that when tourists, and even Christchurch locals, come down to the river to see some stuff that's quintessentially New Zealand.”