Troubled waters: Human waste flows through Hokianga locals' backyards, into harbour

Human waste is flowing right through Hokianga locals' backyards. 

The Hokianga is New Zealand's fourth-largest harbour and for decades has been at the receiving end of multiple wastewater systems.

Wastewater (sometimes treated, sometimes not) flows from the wastewater plants through rivers.

One of them runs right through Fred Toi's garden. 

"The treatment ponds tend to overflow and raw waste is coming down the creek. It's visible. It's not a very nice sight," Toi said.

His tool shed, a stone's throw from the sparkling waters of the Hokianga, is full of tools. He's using them to fix up a ride-on mower, which he's about to take up to mow the grass at Te Whakarongotai Marae.

His decades-long fight to stop sewage running through the river in his backyard has failed.

"We used to get whitebait," Toi told Newshub.  "The river was alive with fish life, it was alive, it was a beautiful river. Now you do get the odd eel but I would not recommend that you eat them, because of what's happening further up the river."

Toi's home is downstream from one of four wastewater plants that empty into the Hokianga Harbour.
Toi's home is downstream from one of four wastewater plants that empty into the Hokianga Harbour. Photo credit: Newshub

They were built to reduce the impact of leaky septic tanks in the 80s. They filter and treat the water through ponds before it finally ends up in the harbour.

But when it rains hard those ponds overflow and raw sewage enters the normal discharge and also makes its way into the harbour.

Toi said when that happens the stench is brutal. 

"It can bring tears to the eyes, it's that uncomfortable. It's that horrible really."

There are buoys bobbing the harbour, some of which mark where wastewater, treated or not, enters the water. But without markers identifying which are which, there are kayakers in the water, totally unaware of the sewage they're potentially paddling in.

Tamariki at Ōmanaia school are the latest in a long line of locals having to speak up.

Speaking to Newshub, they too said enough is enough. 

"I want the future generations to have nice fresh kai moana," one boy said.

 "Kai moana - because I love diving," one girl said.

"I don't want my children to swim along all the waste in the water. I just want them to swim happily, and splash each other," one boy added.

"I want a clean harbour instead of a paru harbour," another boy said.

Their teacher Tanya Filia says it's become an issue central to connecting kids to local issues. 

"That's our place where we gather kai, it's where we swim. It's where we 'be'. And it grew from that. Every single child in our two senior classes wrote submissions."

It's a fight for clean water that's been going for generations. Jessie McVeagh's mother brought her to hui and protests throughout her childhood.

And McVeagh's now a Te Mauri o Te Wai spokesperson - and is doing the same with her son.

"I've been dragging my son since actually before he was born to meetings to mediation and environment court and every other thing," Jessie said.

All that mahi is slowly beginning to pay off.

In Rawene, a temporary, cheaper more environmentally friendly solution has been given the go-ahead.  

"Under the Three Waters funding under the previous Government, we actually were successful alongside council in attracting some money to put in an electric coagulation system into the Rawene plant," McVeagh said.

But it's been a hard-fought small step at just one of the four plants.

The others remain untouched.

Toi believes the fact untreated waste is still entering the harbour after all of the community's work is deeply disappointing. 

"Discharged into our beautiful Hokianga Harbour. That's the essence of us here - our harbour," he said.

"It's our water, it's our mountains. Everything that's happening now is sort of making a mockery of all that."

A mockery that's turned this idyllic vista into troubled waters.