In Aotearoa New Zealand, agricultural land-use intensification and decline in freshwater ecosystem integrity pose complex challenges for science and society. Despite riparian management programmes across the country, there is frustration over a lack in widespread uptake, upfront financial costs, possible loss in income, obstructive legislation and delays in ecological recovery. Thus, social, economic and institutional barriers exist when implementing and assessing agricultural freshwater restoration. Partnerships are essential to overcome such barriers by identifying and promoting co-benefits that result in amplifying individual efforts among stakeholder groups into coordinated, large-scale change. Here, we describe how initial progress by a sole farming family at the Silverstream in the Canterbury region, South Island, New Zealand, was used as a catalyst for change by the Canterbury Waterway Rehabilitation Experiment, a university-led restoration research project. Partners included farmers, researchers, government, industry, treaty partners (Indigenous rights-holders) and practitioners. Local capacity and capability was strengthened with practitioner groups, schools and the wider community. With partnerships in place, co-benefits included lowered costs involved with large-scale actions (e.g., earth moving), reduced pressure on individual farmers to undertake large-scale change (e.g., increased participation and engagement), while also legitimising the social contracts for farmers, scientists, government and industry to engage in farming and freshwater management. We describe contributions and benefits generated from the project and describe iterative actions that together built trust, leveraged and aligned opportunities. These actions were scaled from a single farm to multiple catchments nationally.

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