The river has great cultural and spiritual significance for Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua, Ngai Tahu.
Rangitata (pronounced raki-tata) begins in the headwaters of the Clyde and Havelock Rivers, which are fed by springs, streams, wetlands and melting glacier ice in the Southern Alps. The channels of this braided river criss-cross a wide gravel bed on a 121 km journey to the sea. Braided rivers are internationally rare and the Rangitata supports many uncommon fish, plants and birds.
A gorge at the river’s mid-point forms a natural division, with different land uses, ecology and character above and below. The upper part of the catchment has low intensity farming and landscape-scale riverbed weed and predator control.
Below the gorge, the river is constrained by stop banks and water for irrigation is taken out. Here the farming is more intense, and weeds and encroaching land uses have created a much less natural landscape.
The goal of the restoration is to imprint the whakapapa (geneology) back onto the river and restore its mauri (life force). Mauri represents the essence that binds the physical and spiritual elements of all things together and generates and upholds all life. It is an essential element of the spiritual relationship that Arowhenua have with the Rangitata River.
Rangitata means stairway to heaven, with the stairway leading to tohunga wānanga, a sacred place of education, learning, and conversing with atua (deities). The awa (river) provides kai (food) and access for travel.
The restoration is being undertaken in partnership with Arowhenua, our treaty partner. Their tūpuna (ancestors) had considerable knowledge of the traditional trails, fishing grounds, places for gathering food and other taonga (treaures), and ways to use the river’s resources.
The relationship that people have with the river today, their dependence on it and protocols for the proper and sustainable use of its resources, are important values and underpin the restoration work.
The restoration work is collaborative and builds on the large number of groups and agencies that are already involved in significant projects in the catchment. These include Environment Canterbury, district authorities, LINZ, NIWA, Fish & Game, Braided River Aid, Upper Rangitata Gorge Landcare Group, Braided Rivers Action Group, Salmon Anglers Association, landowners, local farmers and major irrigation companies.
Current restoration work
Scoping, planning and mapping
The conservation values, issues and priorities for action in the catchment were summarised in a report published in 2019. This information provides useful background information for the restoration work, but is not DOC policy.
Planning the restoration work is underway, guided by a cross-functional team of experts and agency representatives.
A collaborative model of engagement with Te Runanga o Arowhenua has been developed. Some restoration sites that could be used as exemplars are being identified, as well as those that have importance for mahinga kai (food gathering). Stories that tell the history and importance of the river are being shared.
Fine sediment model
A computer model to predict how fine sediment is deposited in the lower part of the river is being developed by a PhD student at the University of Canterbury in partnership with other agencies. The project will explore the relationship between flow regimes, sediment deposition and impacts on biodiversity.
Fish and invertebrate surveys
A survey of the river’s fish and invertebrates was completed in autumn 2020. The results were compared with surveys carried out in 1986 and found some changes in the fish communities. A survey of upland longjaw galaxiids (a threatened non-migrating fish) has also been completed in the upper part of the river.
Jobs for Nature funding
In August 2021, two initiatives in the Rangitata River catchment were announced:
- an $8.7 million project focusing on the Lower Rangitata led by Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua
- a $7.3 million project focusing on the Upper Rangitata, managed by the Upper Rangitata Gorge Landcare Group.
The funding will support fencing, wetland restoration, pest trapping, and propagating and planting natives. 34 jobs will be created over 4 years.
Rangitata catchment restoration work
There is already significant restoration work happening in many parts of this large catchment. High country farmers in the upper catchment formed the Upper Rangitata Gorge Landcare Group to promote environmental work in their area. Their significant and ongoing work was recognised with a Weedbusters Award in 2010.
Partnership funding from Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) and Environment Canterbury (ECan) supports large-scale weed and predator control. The river is part of ECan’s Braided River Flagship Programme and some areas are pilot sites for BRAG (Braided River Action Group). BRAG has representatives from Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, ECan, DOC, LINZ, Federated Farmers, Forest & Bird, and Canterbury’s territorial authorities, and seeks to manage and maintain the character of Canterbury’s braided rivers.
The upper catchment of the Rangitata River contributes to the Ō Tū Wharekai wetlands protection area, which is part of the Arawai Kākāriki Wetland Restoration Programme led by DOC.
A major stream and wetland restoration project was carried out from 2011 to 2015 along Deep Stream on Forest Creek and Mesopotamia Stations, funded by ECan’s Immediate Steps biodiversity fund. Work included willow control, fencing beside waterways and planting more than 1,000 native plants. The programme also funded weed control and native planting in a small wetland on the north bank of the river, just below State Highway 1 in 2017/18
Weed and willow control
Weed control in the upper valley has focussed on removing gorse, broom and Russell lupin, with nearly 2,000 ha treated in summer 2017/18. This involved landowners, DOC, ECan, LINZ and Fish & Game.
The Upper Rangitata Landcare Group also carried out additional willow control work, fencing and planting. In 2019 volunteers from the McKinnon’s Creek salmon hatchery supplied native plants and labour to plant beside the spring at the top of the creek.
Trapping in the upper catchment (particularly from Mount Sunday to White Rock) is ongoing and coordinated across a multi-agency group with support from high country farmers. The work aims to protect wrybill and black-fronted terns. The Upper Rangitata Gorge Landcare Group also carries out some control of black-backed gulls in the upper catchment.
Native species present
A range of taonga, rare and endangered species are present in the catchment. The upper river has been identified as a globally outstanding area of native bird habitat.
The Rangitata riverbed area provides nationally significant breeding habitat for many birds, including threatened and at-risk species. These include black-billed gull (Nationally Critical), black stilt (kaki, Nationally Critical), black-fronted tern (Nationally Endangered), and wrybill, banded dotterel and Caspian tern (Nationally Vulnerable).
17 native fish species have been recorded in the area and 11 of these have a threatened or at-risk conservation status. Upland longjaw galaxias (Galaxias prognathus) and lamprey (Geotria australis) are Nationally Vulnerable.
138 native plant species have been identified in the stream channels, wetlands, riverbeds and river margins in the catchment. 14 of these are threatened or at-risk.
Invertebrates associated with the waterways and riverbeds with a threatened or at-risk conservation status include the:
- red katipo spider (Latrodectus katipo)
- robber fly (Neoitamus smithii)
- a grasshopper (Brachaspis ‘lowland’)
- a stonefly (Zelandobius edensis), and
- a mollusc (Austropeplea tomentosa).
10 species of native lizard have been recorded in the Rangitata River area.
If you have any questions or want to get involved, email us.