The news about the quality of water in New Zealand’s stream, lakes, estuaries and rivers is depressingly consistent – freshwater quality is deteriorating at a rapid pace, under siege from the rapid expansion of intensified dairy farming, urban waste practices and erosion.
If you needed convincing take a look at last December’s closing message from the annual conference of the New Zealand Freshwater Science Society:
Failure to act with decisiveness and urgency risks further environmental degradation and erosion of our international environmental reputation and branding. The possibilities of more waterborne illness, serious contamination and depletion of groundwater aquifers, and extinction of native fish species will depend on reversing strong detrimental trends.
The good news is it is possible to halt and reverse this trend for most if not all of our waterways.
In order to protect and enhance New Zealand’s water it is necessary to know what the quality of the water is in the first place. Official monitoring of the larger waterways has been going on since the late 1980s and more recently Regional Councils have taken responsibility for it too. But there is still a great deal of fresh water that we simply know nothing about. However we can do something about that, and indeed many New Zealanders currently are.
All over the country community groups, schools, farmers and many others are monitoring the health of rivers and streams: among other things, measuring water temperature and acidity, looking for the tiny invertebrates that are a sign of healthy water and reporting what they find. Where streams and rivers are found to be ailing, bank edges are being replanted to provide much needed shade, protection from further erosion and reduced farm nutrient runoff. This work is inspiring and worthy of celebration. The release of inadequately treated sewerage into waterways by some provincial towns is a little less of a blessing.
One thing that seems to be missing in this national river working bee is coordination. To our knowledge there is no common monitoring practice followed by these groups nor any place communities can lodge the data they collect about their rivers and streams. Like any military campaign, with coordination comes strength. If standardised methods are used to monitor rivers and streams, and all the data is lodged in one place, the data becomes as valuable to science as that collected by officials.
A move to standardised community monitoring combined with a common database accessible freely to all would be a huge step forward. Having a comprehensive picture of the true situation, while possibly alarming, would nevertheless be of great assistance to our scientists tasked with improving water quality. Another positive outcome is that no local council, lobbied by polluting industries or seduced by the prospects of urban sprawl, would be able to remain complacent safe in the knowledge that nobody knows how bad things have got under their watch.
If you saw last week’s Listener you might know that we’re currently working on a project that aims to help New Zealanders help their rivers. We intend to create annual awards that celebrate New Zealand’s fresh water. We’ll be using data supplied by community groups (as well as official data) to take a stock-take of New Zealand fresh water, identifying rivers and streams that are improving over time and those that are getting worse.
We’ll also be working with others to create a central database where standardised data collected by communities can be lodged. Through supply monitoring kits and information we’re hoping to encourage all community groups to move towards standardised testing of their waterways. We’re also hoping that many more New Zealanders will become regular members of the national river working bee.
There’s a lot to be done, and this is just early days. We’re hoping to have the website up and running mid-year and the inaugural water awards before the end of 2013. We’ll be keeping you updated of progress at www.morganfoundation.org.nz