Future Landscapes

Faecal Source Tracking

Identifying the sources of faecal contamination in waterways, and identifying naturalised Escherichia coli to help establish water quality for swimming

What Are We Doing?

A key indicator of swimmable water quality in New Zealand’s lakes and rivers is the minimal presence of E.coli (Escherichia coli). This bacteria naturally occurs in the gastro-intestinal tract of animals and its presence in water generally indicates faecal contamination, which can make humans sick.

However, recent studies have shown that E. coli can also be present naturally in soil and water, with no risk to human health (non-pathogenic). Faecal Source Tracking research investigates whether the presence of this naturalised Escherichia, rather than faecal contamination, may cause some waterways to fail to meet water quality standards.

Our research will identify all potential sources of faecal contamination impacting waterways, to ensure robust risk assessments and targeted mitigation steps are implemented. Our aim is to provide a significant contribution to the evidence base that ensures New Zealand’s water quality standards for “swimmability” are appropriately protective of human health and recreational values.

How Can The Research Be Used?

  • Using microbiological culture methods, we have found naturalised coli at several sample sites, including those in water catchments situated in closed canopy native bush with intensive pest management. In catchments with agricultural land use, E. coli originating from the gastro-intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals predominate.
  • Our genome sequencing data of 23 naturalised Escherichia strains suggests they represent a distinct evolutionary population. Additionally we have sequenced the genomes of a further 218 coli, and sequenced over 1.1 billion DNA base pairs.
  • Further work aims to identify traits that may be used to rapidly distinguish naturalised Escherichia from coli associated with faecal contamination, for use by stakeholders and catchment communities to establish water quality and ecological health of freshwater environments.
  • The success of our research will be measured through increased participation of regional councils in the co-development of research strategies and tools for assessing land-use suitability.

In the Media

Stream Monitoring for Community Groups: A Crash Course in Practical Citizen Science

Monicalogues blog, 22 October 2017

This blog describes how Nelson community group Friends of the Matai are testing two methods for detecting E. coli


Community Involvement

  • Early dialogue with iwi and Regional Councils at an initial hui identified project sampling sites and social processes to underpin stakeholder engagement. Long-term aspirations for co-developing solutions, such as tools for assessing land-use suitability, were agreed beyond the life of the current project.
  • Our researchers participated in the Citizen Science Community Freshwater monitoring day at Pūkaha Mount Bruce organised by Landcare Trust NZ. This provided an opportunity to provide information on the project to members of the public, Fish & Game and Horizons Regional Council.
  • Our research team is building the capabilities of future researchers by partnering with the Pūhoro STEM Academy to support the students’ science study with emphasis on water quality measurements and te ao Māori, through internships, field studies and lab analysis opportunities.

Team Snapshot

Research Outputs

Conference presentations

Have a Question?

We are happy to answer any questions about this research and how it can be used.

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