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The river drains the western flanks of the Tararua Ranges around Reikorangi and the Akatarawa Valley, then passes to the south of the town of Waikanae before entering the Tasman Sea at Waikanae Beach. Tributaries include the Maungakotukutuku Stream, Ngatiawa River, and Reikorangi Stream. The estuary of the river is a significant reserve providing shelter and habitat for local and migratory seabirds. It also provides a major recreational location, both for residents and tourists.
Water up to a maximum amount is taken out of the river as water supply for Waikanae and Paraparaumu. This sometimes leads to water restrictions if the river runs low, however in January 2005 the river burst its banks after heavy rain. The river has good water quality and high aquatic biodiversity, but there are occasional blooms of toxic cyanobacteria after prolonged periods of low flow during hot, dry weather.
The first bridge was built about 1885 by the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company. It was a 3-span timber truss bridge. In 1925 a fence of old rails was built to protect the bridge, backed by fifteen old square iron tanks (sent from East Town), filled with river bed stones. By 1938 the bridge had been rebuilt in steel and concrete.
The next bridge was built nearby and opened in 1901. It was also 3 timber spans and 247 ft (75 m) long.
- "Wellington and Manawatu Railway bridge over Waikanae river about 1885". National Library of New Zealand. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
- "Stations" (PDF). NZR Rolling Stock Lists. Retrieved 10 August 2020.
- "Wellington-Napier Express crossing the bridge at Waikanae". nzetc.victoria.ac.nz. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
- "WAIKANAE BRIDGE. THE OPENING CEREMONY. EVENING POST". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 30 September 1901. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
- "REFINEMENT ERA FOR PRESTRESSED BRIDGES IN NEW ZEALAND (2003 - TODAY)" (PDF). October 2018.
- Photo of the Waikanae River from the Cyclopaedia of New Zealand c1897
- Photo of the Waikanae rail and road bridges and express train on bridge c1939
- Photo of the Waikanae rail and road bridges and express train leaving bridge c1938
- South bank of Waikanae River with strata identified
- 132793862 Waikanae River on OpenStreetMap