By David Famularo
In November of last year, I was alerted to a comment on the Masterton Matters Facebook page in regards to Solway Stream drying up.
It said “the kids and grand-kids always fed the many eels. Went over the other day and the creek is empty with sand on the bottom of it.”
Other similar comments followed from people who have the stream running through their property.
All sorts of theories were being suggested as to why the stream had dried up, from work on the Solway Country Estate housing development behind Copthorne Solway Park through which the stream runs, to drainage work being carried out along South Belt, to the new unmanned Waitomo service station at the corner of South Belt and High Street.
I decided to try and find out the actual cause, and first started by talking to some of the South Belt residents.
Solway Stream is one of Masterton’s lesser-known streams. Like many of the town’s streams, its primary water source are a group of springs along the fault line ridge that runs along the west side of the town.
You can see the ridge when you drive along Judds Road, with springs in Masterton Showgrounds, and Hillcrest Street where springs emerge in Millennium Reserve.
The springs that feed Solway Stream emerge in and around the little-known Solway Reserve, a small but attractive stand of native trees, all encouraged by the perennially moist environment.
The stream then runs through the Solway Country Estate subdivision, underneath Copthorne Solway Park, across High Street and eventually along South Belt, meeting up with the Fleet Street stream and finally flowing into the Waingawa River.
Growing up on High Street, I always remember the stream as being a place where one could find “crawlies” aka kōura or freshwater crayfish.
When I rang Greater Wellington Regional Council, it turned out they were not aware of the existence of the stream, but it does appear on the excellent map of Masterton’s streams created by Kirsten Brown and Tony Garstang.
The property owners I visited in South Belt told me how the stream had always had a continual flow, and at one stage had been quite a healthy stream with kōura as well as eels.
When exactly the stream dried up varied from one property owner to another, but it seems to have started happening around August last year and more or less completely dried up by November.
I decided to next visit the springs and by chance met a neighbour of Solway Reserve who gave me a comprehensive tour.
He and others confirmed that the flow of the springs was much less than it had been some years before when the floor of the reserve had been perpetually water-logged.
Water from the springs converges into a stream at the edge of the reserve and then a few metres further along splits into two, one flow feeding Solway Stream and the other a nameless stream that runs through Solway Crescent.
It was obvious that Solway Stream had been altered where it runs through the Solway Country Estate subdivision, with artificial concrete bottom and banks, and what looked like a deviation of the original path of the stream.
A few weeks later a group of interested people got together to take a tour through the reserve including Masterton District Councillor Chris Peterson and Masterton District Council Utility Services Manager James Li.
It seemed to be clear, especially listening to the specialist and local knowledge of Mr Li, that Solway Stream is dying a death of a thousand cuts.
One of the primary causes seems to have been the low flows out of the springs which Mr Li said had been very low for the past couple of years.
He also noted that that although rainfall in the past 12 months had been about normal, the groundwater table in general in Masterton had been much lower than normal.
Mr Li pointed out that it is likely that Solway Stream is being affected by multiple causes, as well as the low flow of the springs.
Subdivision work, for example, alters the hydrology of the landscape in regards to water retention and the direction that the water flow takes through the soil.
New house construction may be affecting how and where rainwater is penetrating into the soil, and even be leading to higher flows during periods of high rainfall as well as low flows during dry periods.
From what I could tell the alterations done to Solway Stream at the Solway Country Estate subdivision aren’t the main culprit in the drying up of Solway Stream, although it could be contributing to higher evaporation and other effects.
I sent a number questions to Greater Wellington Regional Council in an Official Information Request in regards to Solway Country Estate and Solway Stream.
On March 1st 2022 I received a response which said “Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently investigating alleged breaches of the Resource Management Act 1991 and impacts on the Solway Stream, which occurred last year on a development in Solway, Masterton. As this matter is currently under investigation, Greater Wellington cannot comment further at this time.”
I don’t know if this investigation has been completed yet.
As of early May 2022, Solway Stream was again flowing, although meekly.
One of the South Belt residents I had previously visited said, “The water started to flow in our creek again about a month after I last spoke to you. It has flowed consistently up until today when it looks like it is about to dry up again. In the time that it has been flowing I have seen eels on three different occasions.”
Mr Li reports that by late last month when he visited it, the stream flow was “about normal” and he suspects that the major rainfall in February and normal rainfall in March had “probably helped to bring the groundwater table back to sustain the stream flow.
“However, this month we did not see much rainfall which means everything is drying up again.
“The spring flow originating in the bush reserve, though, is still not as high as a few years ago to me.”
Overall, it looks like the flow from the springs that are the lifeblood of the stream is still low, and something is happening to the aquifer(s) that feeds them.
One wonders for how long Solway Stream will be flowing again. It may already have dried up by the time of the publication of this article.
One only has to look at the present state of the Waingawa and Waipoua rivers to wonder how the aquifers are doing.
Obviously, a stream that repeatedly dries up does not provide much of a habitat for native flora and fauna.
What is currently happening to Solway Stream may be in the future for Masterton’s other streams as well, with changes in weather patterns, demands on aquifers, new housing subdivisions and so on.
Even things like Masterton’s increasing traffic affect the streams, with more toxic run-off from the roads ending up in the streams.
A better understanding of what is happening to Solway Stream would be helpful for all the streams.
Masterton is unusual in having a patchwork of streams running through the town.
While they are still classed as “drains”, a renewed appreciation of them is growing, especially amongst owners of property through which they run.
It would be great to see Greater Wellington Regional Council, which is responsible for the streams, Masterton District Council, Maori and the wider community working together to better understand all aspects of the streams and create a long term plan for their future health.
David Famularo is a Wairarapa journalist, artist and eel activist