RiverWatch

is about our children’s future

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Declining water quality is something all of us have been seeing for quite some time. Rivers and streams that once used to provide an abundant resource for fishing have, in many cases declined to such an extent that there is no aquatic life left at all. Rivers and lakes that we enjoyed swimming in are now green with algae or muddy brown. This has been the case for my beloved Pahaoa River that runs around my farm in Hinakura. In 2002, it was alive with fish, literally jumping out of the water. Fly rods always hung at the back door, for family and visitors alike to catch a feed. 

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 I made many attempts to draw this to the attention of the regional council and my neighbouring farmers whose farm practice was a major contributor to the aquatic decline. The river and my concerns appeared on many national television programmes and the award-winning documentary River Dog. Every time I discussed the degradation of the Pahaoa River with those in authority, I was told to ‘prove it’. It seems that without sound 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. So, with the help of Victoria University’s Doctor George Allan and Winston Seah of the Computer Science and Engineering faculty we began the RiverWatch project. 

Over the next five years we worked with students to build and develop accurate and robust water quality monitoring technology and data dissemination platform. 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. So much so that water quality testing instruments from other countries, costing tens of thousands of dollars, did not work in our extremely muddy waters. When designing RiverWatch, we refined the testing parameters so that the most useful data was collected. Stuff that is important to swimmers, anglers and human life. 

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 award we continued to develop RiverWatch for release into our rivers. 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 version three that tests for turbidity, conductivity, temperature, pH level and dissolved oxygen 24/7 at predetermined time intervals. Alongside this, we had also developed an IOT, LoRa communication platform for remote areas and integrated data collection for real time web browser connection. 

Timeline

2006-2010 Grant and James Muir witness the degradation of the Pahaoa River at the hands of local landowners.
2009 Documentary River Dog (made by James Muir) premiers about farmer Grant Muir’s attempts to stop cattle from grazing the Pahaoa River that surrounds his property. The documentary goes on to win 12 international awards and sparks debate in NZ about the declining quality of our freshwater.
2011 Victoria University and Grant Muir begin a collaborative project with 3rd year students at Victoria University’s School of Computer Science and Engineering. The project aims to develop technology that can be used to reduce NZ freshwater pollution.
2012 The RiverWatch project is launched publicly with Victoria University. The WAI NZ website, the RiverWatch phone app and the UAV drone surveillance system are released.
2013 RiverWatch updates the WAI NZ website with software improvements and improves the phone app.
2014 RiverWatch improves drone surveillance using face recognition software and begins working on the RiverWatch water tester. Media stories appear on Campbell Live and News channels about WAI NZ.
2015 WAI NZ website improved and RiverWatch phone apps are updated. RiverWatch water tester Stage 2 development.

Media stories on 60 Minutes and Te Radar go global about Grant’s ongoing resolve to halt the decline of NZ freshwater quality.
2016 RiverWatch water tester Stage 3 developed, field tested and data upload integrated into WAI NZ website.

RiverWatch awarded the 2016 WWF Conservation Innovation Award.
2017 WAI NZ and RiverWatch are Wellington Gold Award finalists.

Public release of RiverWatch, developed to a field-tested prototype and start of a successful PledgeMe campaign to raise $50,000, so that beta testing and commercial production can begin.