#5: Making clear gains and measuring progress
When it comes to improving water quality, AgResearch Environmental Scientist Dr Richard Muirhead is pragmatic: “We are here because of little changes over time. So, to get back is the same: little changes over time.”
Dr Muirhead has been involved in the project from the outset. His three key messages to farmers are:
1) Work as a catchment. Water quality is a catchment-scale issue. What you do on your farm matters, but so does what others are doing in the catchment.
2) Get out of your catchment. Find a catchment that has successfully addressed the issues you are facing and find out what they did. It will give you the confidence to get started, while also learning from their mistakes and wins.
3) Involve local Maori and the wider community. There are many people who don’t currently own the land, but have a lot of local knowledge and interest in catchments. Try to identify and tap into this resource. For instance, fence an area and invite people along to help plant it out and maintain it. At the same time, exchange stories.
E. coli: Only one measure of water quality
The standard measure for “Swimability” in rivers is E. coli levels. Other contaminants – such as nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment – are also important, but for other environmental reasons.
Water quality measurement is complex and impossible to interpret from irregular one-off sampling. Reasons for variations include time of years, flood events and low flow. As a minimum, you need about 20 samples over three-to-five years.
E. coli itself is a relatively crude measure. For instance, it includes all faecal matter – cow, bird, human – and other tests are needed to identify the species source.
Finally, water quality standards are typically based on large rivers. Applying the same guidelines to smaller tributaries is a challenge, due to higher concentrations of contaminants.
Dr Muirhead’s advice: “It’s not just about measuring E. coli. It’s about measuring action, too.”
Monitor progress towards your plan. For example, metres of streams bank fenced off or number of trees planted. “Get things moving in the right direction and go from there.”
The Gumboot Test
When it comes to small streams, your eyes are a good tool.
Start with “The Gumboot Test”.
A healthy stream has a rocky or pebble base.
When you stand in a stream, is it clear or is there a plume of mud around your boots? Is it a short puff? Or does the plume linger?
No plume is the best result. A short plume is a heads up that sediment is in there. And a lingering plume means there is significant work to be done.