A small group of volunteers have spent their first day picking plastic waste out of the Fox River bed since all funding dried up on Friday.
Most of the 25km waterway and its floodplain remains strewn with rubbish, after an old landfill was ripped open by a deluge in South Westland in late March.
More buoyant waste such as polystyrene and plastic bottles floated straight out to sea and has been washing up on beaches as far afield as Hokitika, 160km away.
But items such as plastic bags and scrap metal became entangled in forest debris all along the river, or buried under rocks and silt, where they remain.
People have spent nine weeks gathering the rubbish by hand from the riverbed and nearby beaches, but say the job could take years.
Last week the Westland District Council announced it had run out of money to fund the cleanup, and the Government declined to take over the management of what has been likened in scale to the Rena oil spill of 2011.
The Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage told Kathryn Ryan the council had already been given $300,000 and the cleanup was its responsibility.
She said she would discuss the matter with her colleagues, but with dozens of similarly vulnerable landfills around the country, the Government was not keen to set a precedent with a bailout.
That has left the Fox River effort without funding.
The South Westland Coastal Cleanup group said six volunteers went out yesterday to continue the work by hand.
It said they went to one small area they've visited three times already, and still dug a lot of rubbish out of the sediment.
The group has started a GiveaLittle page in the hope of covering some of its costs, and is trying to co-ordinate more volunteers.
Meanwhile, local National MP Maureen Pugh has started a petition to try to force the government's hand.