Declining water quality is something all of us have been seeing for quite some time. Rivers and streams that once provided an abundant resource, have had dramatic declines in health and productivity. Lakes that we enjoyed swimming in are now green with algae or brown with sediment. This has been the case for the Pahaoa River that runs around our farm in Hinakura. In 2002, it was alive with fish.
Ten years later in 2012, the river was dead and devoid of aquatic life. Its fish are long gone, washed up dead on its shores for lack of oxygen and a life-sustaining environment. Over the years we made many attempts to draw this to the attention of the regional council and neighbouring farmers whose farm practice was a major contributor to the pollution. The story of our struggle to save the river appeared in the award-winning documentary River Dog. Every time I discussed the degradation of the Pahaoa River with council, I was told to ‘prove it’. Without scientific water quality data from the river nothing could or would be done to enforce the already existing environmental standards.
I was determined to at least try to save this river, as many Kiwis will empathise with me, when it comes to rivers and streams you have your favourites. They become part of your family. You get to know them and love them. And it is heartbreaking when you watch them die. As we worked on the project we realised how unscientific the water quality data being collected by authorities was. The data was not robust because it was collected at a single point in time and did not reflect the overall condition of where the sample was taken from. We also discovered that turbidity (sedimentation) was the primary cause of habitat loss for aquatic species. In fact, New Zealand has ten times the world average of sedimentation. To the extent that water quality testing instruments from other countries, costing tens of thousands of dollars, did not work in our extremely muddy waters.
In 2016, we finalised and built our first working RiverWatch prototype. This was tested for accuracy alongside regional council instrumentation and integrated into our data collection platform on the WaiNZ website and RiverWatch app. The prototype was awarded the WWF Conservation Innovation Award 2016 and with the $25,000 we continued to develop RiverWatch for release. We also approached many organisations and farming leaders engaged with water use, but they had little appetite for testing water quality, so we continued to fund RiverWatch from our own resources.
By mid-2017, we had built prototype v.3 that tests for turbidity, conductivity, temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen. Alongside this, we had also developed an IOT, LoRaWan communication platform for remote areas and integrated data collection for real-time web browser connection. We continue to develop the water monitor and have extensive field trials lined up for 2018. With a great team of designers, scientists, engineers and innovators now onboard, we aim to be launching the finished device to market at the end of 2018.