By Jenny Webster-Brown

Un-muddying the Waters : Waiology : Oct-Dec 2013If we cannot stop ongoing water quality degradation, and effectively restore degraded water environments, we stand to lose much that we value about New Zealand and our way of life. We will lose recreational opportunities, fisheries and our reputation for primary produce from a “clean” environment. We will lose functioning ecosystems, the ecosystem services they provide and the beauty of our iconic water features. We will have to pay for increasingly higher technology to treat drinking, stock and even irrigation water … like so many drier, more populous or older nations, who have long since lost their natural water amenities. This is not what we have known, or what we wish for our children, or their children. To improve water quality, we need only three things: the will, the means and the time.

This is the final invited article in this Waiology series on aspects of water quality. On the basis of the preceding articles, augmented by my own experience as a water quality scientist, I would like to reflect on where we currently stand with respect to these three requirements. A ‘will’ to improve water quality is clearly evident. Over the last 5 years we have seen an unprecedented level of activity from national government seeking to change NZ’s freshwater management policy, via various primary industry initiatives, the broad, consensus-based Land and Water Forum and the ‘Fresh Start for Freshwater’ programme. A greater role for community decision-making in setting water quality targets for local catchments is a key component of the Freshwater Reforms.

A Lincoln University research student measuring changes in water quality parameters over a 24 hr period in Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora,  to understand how this large shallow lake responds to catchment land use.  (Photo: J. Webster-Brown)

A Lincoln University research student measuring changes in water quality parameters over a 24 hr period in Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora, to understand how this large shallow lake responds to catchment land use. (Photo: J. Webster-Brown)

The ‘means’ include the new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, highlighted in two of the Waiology articles (1, 2), and its recent amendment to include a more prescriptive National Objectives Framework (NOF). However, the devil is, as always, in the detail. The devil, in this case, is in the science information that underpins this new policy. Water quality degradation is a classic “wicked problem”, with multiple contributing factors, unexpected interactions and often inexplicable environmental responses. The Waiology blog has included articles by some of NZ’s top freshwater scientists, conveying their understanding of the cause and effects of the ongoing water quality decline; causes such as urban stormwater drainage and agricultural activities, and effects as manifested in surface freshwaters, ground waters and estuaries. The authors have also often noted the limits of their current understanding, the difficulties imposed by insufficient data, and how this creates uncertainty in predicted outcomes. This same uncertainty can lead to disagreement amongst scientists asked for comment or advice, as it has with the setting of numerical ‘attribute states’ in the NOF, for example.

To quote author Sheldon Kopp … ‘All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data’. Although robust scientific debate is considered a healthy way to get at the truth in the world of science, it is not particularly helpful to policy makers or to the communities tasked with making decisions about the value of a water body. So how can scientists best support the immediate needs of this brave new world of freshwater management? While acknowledging the need for better data and information about water environments, we can try to communicate the concepts and facts that we do have confidence in, as simply as possible and without contradiction. We can help the policy-writers formulate straightforward, practical policies. Recent freshwater management policy introduces increasingly unfamiliar terminology and complex application principles. In the field of water quality science, there are many examples of simpler guidelines and standards taking precedence over more rigorous, but difficult to use, alternatives.

Scientists can help to manage expectations, by providing guidance on realistic targets for water quality and being honest about likely timescales for change. Which brings us to ‘time’. Even if every positive action taken has the anticipated positive effect, improvements in water quality will not be immediate or perhaps, in some cases, even detectable within our lifetimes. This is just the beginning of a critical time for NZ water quality and good things, in the words of Mainland Cheese, do take time. More reliable predictions of future conditions will be critical during this period to reassure those who grow impatient, that change won’t happen overnight … but it will happen.

Professor Jenny Webster-Brown is a water quality chemist, and the Director of the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management at the universities of Canterbury and Lincoln.