On the border of North Otago and South Canterbury, the town of Kurow is tiny by most people's standards. Hugging the southern bank of the mighty Waitaki River, it is home to just over 300 people, many of whom trace their roots back to settlers and the original farming families in the region.
But Kurow punches well above its size with big and bold ideas. It was the birthplace of New Zealand's first social security system, set up amid the Great Depression to support workers at the Waitaki hydroelectric scheme.
Kurow is also home to one of the longest-running community-led island restoration projects in the country. Approaching from the north, Kurow Island emerges among the clear, braided waters of the river, with bridges on either side linking it to the mainland. It is an impressive gateway to the town with wetlands, walking tracks and a well maintained scenic reserve for recreation and events.
But it wasn't always so picturesque. Twenty years ago, the island was a neglected and pest ridden wasteland of overgrown gorse and scrub, and illegal dumping of wrecked cars, industrial and chemical waste and household rubbish had created an eyesore right in the middle of the Waitaki River.
The fortunes of Kurow Island have ebbed and flowed with patterns of human settlement in the area. A photo in Kurow Museum from the late 1800's shows picnics taking place on the island, showing it was prized for its recreational value by early settlers to the area.
In the early 1900's however, a decision was made to establish a district landfill on Kurow Island. This marked the beginning of decades of major environmental degradation that saw the loss of the island both as a place of pride for locals and as a site supporting rich land and marine biodiversity.
The turning point
The turning point for Kurow Island came in the early 2000's. Meridian Energy, which generates hydroelectric power from the Waitaki, had announced new plans to divert water from the river which included restoration of the island as a recreational reserve. The plans for diverting water into another hydro generation scheme were abandoned, but the idea of restoring the island had sparked the imagination of locals and Meridian Energy staffers alike.
Kurow local Sandy Cameron was at the frontline of the idea to reverse nearly a century of environmental damage on Kurow Island, but she knew the scale of the challenge was immense. Cameron says large amounts of chemical waste and other contaminants had inevitably leached into the water table and spread throughout the wider river system.
"We had a toxic dump right in the middle of the braided river and we just thought that was appalling."
The dump had also created a serious fire risk for the town, with sirens sounding nearly every other day. Cameron says Meridian Energy's consultants and staff brought the resources and expertise they needed to get such a significant project off the ground.
"It all started from there. We really couldn't have done it without their enthusiasm, it simply wouldn't have happened if we hadn't had that knowledge and support."
Vision meets reality
Cameron and her group soon realised they were facing a lot more than a physical cleanup operation on Kurow Island. With District Council boundaries running straight up the middle and multiple government agencies responsible for aspects of the island, navigating layers of public bureaucracy added a huge amount of time and work.
"It was administered by LINZ, and there was DOC ownership. The Waimate and Waitaki District Councils owned the island. Then we had to deal with Environment Canterbury, there were so many agencies involved."
Meridian Energy helped the group establish a comprehensive landscape management plan including guidelines for every process that needed to be followed, from consultation and resource consent, to compliance, design management and financial reporting.
The scale of the project was such that Cameron says some locals doubted their ability to pull it off successfully, although this changed when the results of the physical restoration started to become apparent.
"Once they saw the bulldozers roll in and crush the gorse and broom, when the truckloads of clay and soil came in, suddenly it was just like 'oh my goodness!'".
After the landfill was capped and progress was slowly made, it became clear to Cameron and her team that restoring the island would in fact become a lifelong project, and there were moments where they felt overwhelmed by the physical work.
"We used to say to each other 'Oh my god, what have we started? How on earth are we going to get this done? But we were a united group and became good friends. It was just so rewarding to see what was being done and it gave us so much pride."
An island restored
Today, no signs remain of the environmental disaster created by the landfill and dumping on Kurow Island. Endangered Black fronted terns, which breed only on the braided river beds of the South Island, can be seen on the gravel islets around the island. New signs will soon educate visitors about local history, ecology, plants, birds and aquatic life. A wedding was recently celebrated here, and community events are taking place again.
In a town founded on principles of hard work and benevolence, Cameron and her group have achieved more than restoring the natural environment to an iconic and nationally important landscape. They have also restored the mana, pride and sense of place to an island that had been treasured by locals and visitors alike for generations.
The group has also ensured the island will continue to be cared for and maintained into the future.
"The Councils and agencies we've worked with have all bought into it. We know someone will do the spraying. We know that tractors will come and mow the grass. You have to have things in place for when you can no longer be a part of it, you need a succession plan."
As well as being future focused, Cameron and her group say it's vital to go into a project of this scale with your sights set on the bigger picture.
"That's how we went in, boots and all and with very little knowledge. I'd say don't look at the small stuff first, you have to approach it with the heart, and a vision of how it will turn out in the end."
The legacy of the Kurow Island restoration is an asset which will continue to draw people to this special part of the country, defined by the braided river that flows from Aoraki/Mount Cook all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
"Walking around it, listening to the river and seeing the snow capped mountains all around, it's wonderful to think 'we've actually done it. It was a terrific experience that I would not miss for all the world."
This article was originally posted on StuffNZ 31 May 2021