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Monitoring Freshwater Improvement Actions

Monitoring the effectiveness of interventions and mitigation actions on freshwater improvement

Monitoring Freshwater Improvement Actions Key Image Dscf0679
Dimitrios Rados, freshwater scientist at Aquanet Consulting, undertakes freshater monitoring at Pukeonake Stream, a tributary of the Whakapapanui Stream, in Tongariro National Park.


Challenge funding: $2,956,000

Research duration:
July 2020 – March 2021 (proof of concept)
October 2021 – December 2023 (tool development)

What Are We Doing?

Many people are taking action to improve freshwater quality through activities such as stream fencing and planting, wetland restoration, and changes in farming practices.

Monitoring the collective effect of these activities on freshwater health has not been standard practice in New Zealand – but it is now urgently required. Government regulations introduced in 2020 require action to be taken to improve freshwater where it is degraded, and task regional councils with monitoring both the mitigation actions and their freshwater outcomes.

Our current freshwater monitoring methods and networks give us information on the health of freshwater over time, but don’t establish cause-and-effect relationships – how improvement actions reduce contaminant loads or improve ecological health, for example. This programme is developing a toolkit to help all groups involved in freshwater improvement actions design monitoring programmes that will measure the success of actions to restore freshwater, and to help them select appropriate monitoring technologies that enable early detection of improvement.

Over time, these monitoring programmes will give people taking action on the ground information on successes and failures of past actions, helping them prioritise the most effective actions to improve freshwater quality, so our rivers more quickly return to good health.

How Can The Research Be Used?

  • The aim of this research programme is to develop a toolkit that helps everyone involved in freshwater improvement actions (councils, iwi, co-governance entities and catchment groups) to robustly monitor rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers to detect early improvement. These tools will help freshwater stewards and kaitiaki decide what to measure, where, when, with what technology, and understand how much it will cost.
  • Online mapping tools and supporting resources developed by this project will be free for all to use to evaluate and report the effectiveness of activities to restore freshwater health.
  • This research will explore which monitoring technologies and network designs best facilitate a kaupapa Māori approach to detecting the effects of whenua-based mitigation actions on wai Māori.
  • Catchment-based case studies will enable the development and testing of the toolkit in a range of real-life situations. A monitoring programme will be designed with each case study catchment, optimised to assess the success of mitigation actions in that catchment.
  • The toolkit will enable a regional authority to find out whether its existing freshwater monitoring network is suitable to detect early improvement. It will provide guidance on monitoring network design and monitoring technologies that optimise the ability to detect the effects of the mitigation plan.
  • Tools will be developed by the end of 2023. This timeframe will enable the development of mitigation effectiveness monitoring plans in time for inclusion in the next generation of regional plans, which must be publicly notified by the end of 2024.
  • Initial working groups completed in March 2021 delivered proof-of-concept outputs (see Resources, below). These working groups identified what is required to develop functional tools for catchment managers, and the existing or emerging technologies that can be used to successfully monitor the effect of freshwater improvement actions.

Research Updates

Map of New Zealand showing the location, catchment size and estimated lag time between nitrate–N leaching losses and nitrate–N load for catchments

Sep 20 2021

Nitrate Takes Less Than 5 Years to Travel from Farm to River, on Average

The decisions farmers make today to reduce excess nutrients will be reflected in water quality ...
Aerial view of Waikato River, near Taupo. Photo by Adobe Stock / Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye

Aug 13 2021

Designing Freshwater Monitoring Programmes to Detect Early Improvement

New Zealanders share an understanding that, like people, our rivers have the right to be ...
Children splashing in thermal river in forest, Kerosene Creek, Rotorua

Aug 12 2021

Survey Highlights Differences in Priorities for Monitoring Water Quality

Which freshwater attributes are vital to monitor, to see the benefit from mitigation actions? The ...

In the Media

Freshwater monitoring needs ‘more refined’ approach

Farmers Weekly, 26 August 2021

Ausseil says state of the environment monitoring is very good at providing what the current state of freshwater is and what the long-term changes are but because it hasn’t been designed specifically with a mitigation plan in mind, although it might pick up improvements, there’s often a struggle to establish a cause and effect relationship to say exactly what caused the improvement.


Community Involvement

  • Two case study catchments will participate in this research: the Pokaiwhenua catchment (a tributary to the Waikato River) and the Pelorus / Te Hoiere Catchment. The project will engage with the catchment community, including mana whenua, catchment groups, and regional council, to apply and test the tools and resources produced as part of this research in a real-life catchment management context.
  • Case studies involving iwi and hapū will involve wānanga and hui led by tangata tiaki to keep tangata whenua informed and to share research findings.
  • Input into the development of this research was provided via the Implementing Te Mana o Te Wai project, which held wānanga with mātauranga Māori experts from around the country to discuss their relationship with wai, and how this needs to be reflected in the implementation of Te Mana o te Wai.
  • A small digital survey found respondents were interested in a wider range of attributes than are usually monitored, and have different interpretations of success. The general public and Māori groups of respondents reported quite different priorities to people working in local government.

Team Snapshot

Research Outputs


Towards implementation of robust monitoring technologies alongside freshwater improvement policy in Aotearoa New Zealand

Rogier Westerhoff, Richard McDowell, James Brasington, Mark Hamer, Kohji Muraoka, Maryam Alavi, Abigail Lovett, Ian Ruru, Blair Miller, Neale Hudson, Moritz Lehmann, Maïwen Herpe, James King, Magali Moreau, Olivier Ausseil
Environmental Science & Policy, June 2022

International studies point out that some freshwater policy objectives are not achieved. This study describes that this is in part caused by shortcomings that include: the lack of targeted monitoring schemes to measure impact; a too-small range of specific technologies; a too tight focus on sub-sets of stakeholders instead of the involvement of the wider range of end-users; and poor trust-building and technology explanations to end-users. In this study we aim to better understand what is needed for successful integration of innovative monitoring technologies in a transitional environmental policy setting, using recent New Zealand policy directives as a case study. We found change in the practice of environmental monitoring is limited by the development of defensible and accepted guidelines on the application and effective deployment of existing sensors and methods. We propose a new decision support and communication tool to enable the selection of monitoring technologies and solutions fit-for-purpose to evaluate freshwater improvement outcomes on multiple scales involving multiple stakeholders.


Decision Support Tools

The Monitoring Design and Monitoring Technologies working groups
Atlassian Confluence platform, March 2021

All information repositories, decision support tools and modules that compose the proof-of-concept Monitoring Design Framework are hosted in an online platform (these include a riparian mitigation DST, a lake mitigation DST and groundwater nitrate DST). All are hosted on the Atlassian Confluence online platform. Access can be provided on request. Please note that a reasonably high level of end-user technical proficiency was assumed for the initial outputs.


Monitoring the Effectiveness of Actions to Improve Freshwater

Our Land and Water (August 2021)
Guidance prepared by Our Land and Water (Toitū te Whenua, Toiora te Wai) National Science Challenge, New Zealand, p8

A short guidance document for regional councils, government, and multi-agency catchment groups. The guidance on designing freshwater monitoring programmes to detect early improvement summarises the work of two working groups convened by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge. This document includes considerations for designing freshwater monitoring programmes, a recommended 5-step process, describes the key elements of the Mitigation Effectiveness Monitoring Design Framework, and outlines what is required to implement improved freshwater monitoring programmes in New Zealand.

Measuring the benefits of management actions: Mitigation effectiveness monitoring design (proof of concept phase)

Ausseil, O., Clapcott J.E., Etheridge Z., Hamilton D., Linke S., Matheson F., Ramsden M., Ruru I., Selbie D., Tanner C., Whitehead A., Bradley A.
Report for Our Land and Water, March 2021

A five-step process was developed to answer the key question asked of Working Group 1: “Have the mitigation actions resulted in improved freshwater outcomes?”. To assist with the implementation of the five-step process described above, a range of information repositories, Decision Support Tools (DSTs) and modules were created. Three specific Decision Support Tools were developed: A riparian mitigation DST, a Lake Mitigation DST, a groundwater Nitrate DST. This report includes recommendations or suggestions for potential further work to develop specific elements of the framework beyond the “proof of concept” stage and develop and integrate user-ready tools to guide the design of mitigation effectiveness mitigation plans.


Presentation to come

Olivier Aussieil, Rogier Westerhoff
NZFSS/Hydrological Sciences Society Conference, 2021

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