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Future Landscapes

Physiographic Environments of New Zealand

Integrating landscape process knowledge with water chemistry to understand how and why surface water quality varies across New Zealand

What Did We Do?

Water composition and quality varies widely between regions and catchments around New Zealand, even where there are similar land uses and pressures on the surrounding land. This is due to the influence of natural landscape features, which can account for more than twice the variability in water quality than land use alone. Therefore, it’s important to include landscape attributes in explanations for water quality outcomes.

Physiographic science works ‘backwards’, using water composition to trace the water’s journey back through the landscape to understand the landscape controls over water composition, and hence quality.

Physiographic Environments of New Zealand (PENZ) researchers are using national and regional water composition and quality data sets, in conjunction with existing geospatial layers, to map and numerically model the processes that control the spatial variability of water. The method brings together data for climate, topography, geology, soils, and hydrological controls with analytical chemistry at a national scale.

How Can The Research Be Used?

  • Regional and district councils (Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Horizons, Canterbury, Southland) are sharing data and collaborating to develop and apply the physiographic approach to their regions.
  • Physiographic outputs have been loaded into Northland Regional Council's ESRI Collector software suite in order to support the council's farm, forestry and biodiversity extension teams in the field.
  • An aligned MPI Sustainable Farming Fund project, Farmer Interface for Physiographic Environments, is underway to provide physiographic maps to farmers. A web-based map is being co-developed with a wide range of collaborators including farmers and industry representatives: Foundation of Arable Research, Deer Industry New Zealand, Ravensdown, Ballance Agri-Nutrients, Living Water, Southland Economic Development Agency, Environment Southland. The key aim is to educate farmers on how contaminants (N, P, sediment and faecal microbes) leave their land so that they can make well-informed land use decisions to reduce losses.
  • Fonterra farm extension advisors are using the method to tailor their evolved Sustainable Dairying Programme (Tiaki). Specifically, calibrating farm extension initiatives to the physiographic setting, in order to implement the most effective and least cost steps towards minimising environmental contamination from farms.
  • A collaboration with Living Water (a Fonterra and Department of Conservation partnership) allowed the research team to apply the physiographic method to the Waituna Catchment. This work enabled a significant amount of method development to be undertaken and tested. Fonterra has now incorpoarted physiographic information into the Tiaki Farm Source model within the Waituna Catchment, in order to provide more targeted advice to its suppliers and inform farm environment plans.
  • Physiographic science is now being taught through Lincoln University's third-year soil science course.

In the Media

Overseer and regulatory oversight

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, December 2018

The physiographic approach was identified as a novel approach to provide useful information about the vulnerability of the land, and help indicate appropriate land-use management (p114)

New Zealand Spatial Excellence Awards 2018

The PENZ research team were finalists in the Environment and Sustainability section of the New Zealand Spatial Excellence Awards 2018


Team Snapshot

Research Outputs


A hydrochemically guided landscape classification system for modelling spatial variation in multiple water quality indices: Process-attribute mapping

C.W.F. Rissmann, L.K. Pearson, M. Beyer, M.A. Couldrey, J.L. Lindsay, A.P. Martin, W.T. Baisden, T.J. Clough, T.W. Horton, J.G. Webster-Brown
Science of The Total Environment, July 2019

Spatial variation in landscape attributes can account for much of the variability in water quality relative to land use on its own. Such variation results from the dominant processes governing water quality, and gradients in key landscape attributes. Despite the importance of ‘process-attribute’ gradients (PAG) few water quality models explicitly account for their influence. Here a processes-based water quality modelling framework (Process-Attribute Mapping) is presented that more completely accounts for the role of landscape variability over water quality, here applied to the province of Southland (31,824 km2), New Zealand. PAGs can be used in conjunction with land use activity to communicate how and why water quality varies spatially.

Interactive Tool

Landscape DNA

Integrating landscape properties and cutting-edge science to explain why water quality varies

Explore your landscape setting, your region, and surface water catchment in this interactive map.


Integrated landscape mapping of water quality controls for farm planning – applying a high resolution physiographic approach to the Waituna Catchment, Southland

Rissmann, C., Pearson, L., Lindsay, J., Beyer, M., Marapara, T., Badenhop, A., Martin, A.
Farm environmental planning – Science, policy and practice. Occasional Report No. 31, Fertilizer and Lime Research Centre, Massey University, 2018

Living Water (a Fonterra and Department of Conservation partnership) commissioned a high-resolution physiographic assessment of the Waituna Catchment, Southland, to support water quality and biodiversity investment decisions for the catchment. The key process-attribute layers identified for the Waituna Catchment are hydrology and redox. In total there were 19 PGU’s defined by combing the H-PAL and R-PAL, each of which are characterised by a unique combination of landscape attributes that mediate land use pressure in a different manner and/or degree.


Physiographic Environments of New Zealand: Information Document for Regional Councils

Pearson, L., Rissmann, C.
Land and Water Science Report 2018/16

​Application of Physiographic Science to the Northland Region: Preliminary Hydrological and Redox Process-Attribute Layers

Rissmann, C., Pearson, L., Lindsay, J., Couldrey, M., and Lovett, A.
Land and Water Science Report 2018/11

​Evaluation of the physiographic method for the Tasman Region

Lovett, A. Rissmann, C.
Land and Water Science Report 2018/04

Advice for application of the physiographic method to the West Coast Region

Lovett, A. and Rissmann, C.
Land and Water Science Report 2018/08

Evaluation of geospatial datasets and recognition of landscape gradients specific to water quality

Rissmann, C., Marapara, T., Bloomberg, S., Lindsay, J., Pearson, L.
e3 Scientific Report for Northland Regional Council. December 2017


NZIPIM Webinar #45 Landscape DNA 23.3.22

Lisa Pearsson
NZIPIM webinar, 22 March 2022

Physiographic Environments of New Zealand

Lisa Pearson and Clint Rissmann
Our Land and Water Symposium, August 2019


Integrated Landscape Mapping of Water Quality Controls for Farm Planning

Clint Rissman, Lisa Pearson, Jessie Lindsay, Tapuwa Marapara, Alexandra Badenhop
Farm environmental planning – Science, policy and practice, February 2018

Physiographic Environments of New Zealand: An integrated landscape classification for understanding variation in water quality

Pearson, L., Rissmann, C., Beyer, M., Lindsay, J., Couldrey, M., Lovett, A.
New Zealand Soil Science Society Conference, December 2018

The missing link to better target on-farm practices to address water quality?

Clint Rissman, Lisa Pearson, Jessie Lindsay, Matt Couldrey
Public lecture, Lincoln University, September 2017

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