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 bring this to the attention of the regional council and neighbouring farmers. The story of our struggle to save the river appeared in the award-winning documentary River Dog. Every time we discussed the degradation of the Pahaoa River with council, we were 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.
As we worked on the project we realised how little information was being collected on the state of our waterways. Only 8% of our rivers are monitored and only 5 % of our lakes. Additionally the data that was available is not robust because it was traditionally collected at a single point in space and time. A river is a system in constant flux, hence real-time measurements are the best way to observe and monitor changes in quality.
So we set out to build a device that would help us measure water quality data in real-time. In 2016, we built our first working RiverWatch prototype. This was awarded the WWF Conservation Innovation Award 2016 and made WAI NZ a finalist in the Wellington Gold Awards. We continue to develop the water monitor and have extensive field trials lined up for 2018.