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By Daniel Collins

Un-muddying the Waters : Waiology : Oct-Dec 2013After 10 weeks and 26 articles, Waiology’s series on water quality draws to a close. We have heard from 26 different contributors from 10 different organisations. Articles spanned topics from states and trends in observational data to diverse management solutions. There were some glaring omissions, for which I apologise, but not all requests translated into articles for one reason or another.

It is hard to provide a summary of the series, and no such summary could canvas the entirety of the science and management or water quality in New Zealand, but I shall offer you some of the more pertinent points.

  • Water quality is generally declining due to land use intensification, and without significant action from a range of sectors it is likely to degrade further. Climate change could add to the problem.
  • Agriculture is the primary culprit for the decline, and dairying in particular, but let’s not forget urban pollution and emerging contaminants, and nor should we tar an entire industry for the activities of a fraction.
  • Also, don’t forget estuaries – they’re on the receiving end of catchment contaminant runoff.
  • Consequences of poor water quality include elevated health risk, shifts or declines in freshwater biodiversity, and diminished recreational opportunities.
  • Recreational water quality guidelines for swimming suitability don’t satisfactorily reflect the science.
  • Water quality limits are being set at the national and local levels, incorporating science, economics, and the myriad of values held dear by community members. But to be effective the limits need to be as precise as the desired outcomes.
  • Many management solutions are being implemented to maintain or improve water quality, from the stream and farm to the catchment and country, informed in part by scientific and economic modelling, but these efforts will take time to pay off.

While the series was running, it was also interesting to see that the news cycle was punctuated by water quality events of its own. The hearings for the Ruataniwha Plains water storage proposal began. The Government’s second round of freshwater reforms were announced, along with an initial suite of water quality limits with the National Objectives Framework. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released another report on water quality. And a report from Lincoln University identified water as New Zealander’s environmental issue of greatest concern (PDF).

Of ten aspects of our environment, rivers and lakes were ranked the worst condition in the Lincoln report, though they were not necessarily bad. In terms of management, people were also most negative about river and lakes combined, followed by groundwater. The main threats for freshwaters were thought to come from farming, followed by sewage and stormwater, and then industrial activities. And over the 13 years of these Lincoln reports, more and more people blame farming for freshwater degradation.

But why do people believe what they believe? How do these beliefs diverge from reality (if they do)? And how do they affect directions in the science and management? These are three Science, Technology and Society questions that I would dearly love answered.

So turning back to the series, what did you learn? Are the waters less muddied for you now, so to speak? If you would, please fill out the feedback form for the series, it would be most helpful. I would also be some reward for the time I put into the series after hours.

Waiology will of course continue next year with more than just water quality on the agenda. Your requests would help guide article selection.

And finally, in the interests of providing an accessible resource for future readers, here is the final list of articles.

  1. Un-muddying the Waters: Series on NZ water quality. Daniel Collins, NIWA.
  2. A primer on water quality. Clive Howard-Williams, NIWA.
  3. An overview of the water quality in New Zealand rivers. Rob Davies-Colley, NIWA.
  4. Pipes, ponds and beyond: Measuring and managing urban stormwater quality. Jonathan Moores and Jenni Gadd, NIWA.
  5. Bugs in the system: How do we make sense of recreational water quality? Gary Bedford, Taranaki Regional Council.
  6. Effects of water quality on freshwater fish. David Rowe, NIWA.
  7. Water quality – What about the fish and the anglers? Neil Deans, Fish and Game NZ.
  8. Estuaries on the receiving end of catchment runoff. Judi Hewitt, NIWA.
  9. Proposed national bottom lines for water quality. Daniel Collins, NIWA.
  10. Why freshwater management needs to include estuaries? Malcolm Green, NIWA.
  11. Managing nitrogen in the Lake Taupo catchment. Bill Vant and Jon Palmer, Waikato Regional Council.
  12. Monitoring the diversity of NZ groundwater quality. Magali Moreau, Chris Daughney and Zara Rawlinson, GNS Science.
  13. Science and policy merge in water plan. Paul Reynolds, Ministry for the Environment.
  14. Overcoming obstacles to setting water quality limits. Ned Norton, NIWA/Environment Canterbury, and Helen Rouse, NIWA.
  15. Nuisance periphyton – too much of a good thing. John Quinn, NIWA.
  16. Nitrate in Canterbury groundwater. Carl Hanson, Environment Canterbury.
  17. Emerging organic contaminants: A threat to New Zealand freshwaters? Sally Gaw, University of Canterbury.
  18. Water quality models – are they good enough for management? Sandy Elliott, NIWA.
  19. Estuary water quality for ecosystem health and recreation, Christchurch. Lesley Bolton-Ritchie, Canterbury Regional Council.
  20. How does agriculture affect New Zealand’s water quality? Bob Wilcock, NIWA.
  21. Vague expectations get vague results: Freshwaters need targets. Mike Scarsbrook, DairyNZ.
  22. Understanding groundwater quality – why it’s not easy. Chris Daughney and Magali Moreau, GNS Science.
  23. Impacts of climate change on water quality. Daniel Collins, NIWA.
  24. How much dairying is too much in terms of water quality? Daniel Collins, NIWA.
  25. Better water quality won’t happen overnight … but it must happen. Jenny Webster-Brown, Canterbury and Lincoln Universities.
  26. Water quality series: What do you think? Daniel Collins, NIWA.

Dr Daniel Collins is a hydrologist and water resource scientist at NIWA.