Incentives for Change

How Can We Connect Farmers’ Actions to See the Big Picture on Improving Water Quality?

New research identifies potential standard measurements for on-farm actions to improve water quality. This will allow small pieces of information from multiple farms and restoration projects to be connected, giving a big picture of the hard work being done by farmers all over Aotearoa New Zealand

Puzzle with image of a panorama with lost pieces inside. Copyright: cla78 / 123rf

Farmers and growers work hard to manage their impact on water quality, changing grazing and fertilizer management practices, planting trees, fencing riverbanks and wetlands, and putting sediment traps in place. But without consistent ways to measure these land management actions, it’s impossible to connect information from multiple farms to get the full picture of what’s being done, where.

Most importantly, it stops us seeing how effective these actions are for improving water quality.

A recently published paper from the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge identifies a suite of indicators for consistently measuring on-farm management actions to improve water quality.

Recording land management actions in a standard way will allow them to be put together and linked to water quality outcomes, says the paper’s lead author Kati Doehring, freshwater ecologist and science communicator at the Cawthron Institute.

“Water quality degradation happens at a catchment scale, but restoration and protection activities happen at a much smaller scale,” explains Doehring. As well as farmer efforts, community groups and council initiatives are also working to improve water quality, along with restoration projects on Māori-owned and public land.

“If we think of activities on each farm or stream as small pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to join them into a big picture they need to be recorded and reported in a consistent way.”

This whole-catchment picture is urgently needed, as new freshwater policy and investments such as Ministry for the Environment’s Exemplar Catchment Initiative are directed at catchment-scale restoration.

Recording actions in a standardised way will also be a big help to farmers, making it easier for catchment residents to co-ordinate their efforts – and seeing how their efforts are combining with others to accelerate improvement in their catchment’s water quality may motivate more land managers to join in.

The paper (Journal of Environmental Management, 2020) identifies potential standard indicators for the location, scale and intensity of the most common actions to improve water quality, based on scientific literature published in academic journals.

Farmers may want to consider using these indicators to measure progress towards their Farm Environment Plan goals, but Doehring is careful to point out this list of potential indicators is “nowhere near exhaustive”.

“Kiwi farmers will have their own indicators that might not be included, and some potential indicators may be impractical for them to implement. Our ongoing work to create a Register of Land Management Actions for New Zealand will continue to refine and improve this list.”

An important next step is to work with industry sectors and government to develop valid and meaningful indicators to record and report actions in Farm Environment Plans.

Why is Recording Actions so Difficult?

Recording land management actions is more complex than it may first appear. The research team reviewed 91 global publications and proceedings (all published between 1989 and 2019) and found that researchers all over the world encounter similar complexities when attempting to quantify land management actions that help improve water quality.

There are 5 main difficulties, says Doehring.

  1. Cost. Measurements can be labour intensive and costly – although remote sensing technology is beginning to address this challenge. Also, resources are often poured into the process of implementing land management actions themselves, leaving little for monitoring whether an action makes a difference.
  2. Privacy and confidentiality. Data often ‘belongs’ to the implementer or funder of a project, which means useful information and lessons learned are often unavailable to others. It’s also important to aggregate data, so that information specific to individual properties isn’t made public.
  3. Lack of standard recording methods. There are many ways to record what’s been done on a farm, from paper records to digital recording to aerial coverage, and different expectations for detail and robustness.
  4. Variability of data quality due to multiple spatial scales. One catchment may benefit from many small-scale restoration projects, such as community working bees in targeted stream sections and individual farmer efforts in small land areas. This creates a fragmented and disconnected jigsaw of restoration data within a catchment, while sector groups or government agencies may be recording data too broadly, such as on a regional scale.
  5. Lag effect of management actions. Monitoring programmes often run over just 5 to 10 years, but there is often a lag in time before an improvement in water quality can be seen. Lag times are difficult to predict and can range from less than a year, up to 200 years.

About the Register of Land Management Actions

This research was completed as part of the development of a Register of Land Management Actions for New Zealand.

This project will create a free online tool to record efforts to improve water quality within rural catchments. It will combine existing recording initiatives by farmers, growers, iwi/hapū, primary sector bodies, community groups and councils, including actions implemented through farm environment plans.

It will display information in a way that reflects the combined effort in a catchment, showing the extent and intensity of the actions, while recognising the confidentiality of actions on individual properties.

“Individual property owners will have complete privacy,” explains Doehring. “The register is not a compliance tool, and we’re designing it specifically so it can’t be used in this way.”

The tool that is ultimately developed will improve our ability to link management actions on land, with outcomes in water quality at monitoring sites. It will enable people in one catchment to see what has worked in other catchments with similar climate and topography, and over what timeframe.

The register will give people all over New Zealand greater awareness of the efforts underway by land managers to improve our freshwater quality, and a clearer picture of how far we have come.

Although the register itself won’t link these efforts to water quality outcomes, the information it collects will enable this to be done by others. The register could also be expanded in future to look beyond freshwater to the broader health of te Taiao (the natural world) such as biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Connecting all efforts in a catchment to environmental outcomes will show us which actions work best and where restoration costs have been spent most effectively,” says Doehring. “This could boost confidence to invest in the land management actions most likely to make a difference.”


More information:


Annabel McAleer

Communications Manager, Our Land and Water. Text in this article is licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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