Six ways to improve water quality in New Zealand’s lakes and rivers


File 20180416 566 16cxzx5.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Lake Tarawera, seen from its outlet, has excellent but declining water quality.
Troy Baisden, CC BY-SA

Troy Baisden, University of Waikato

Two years ago, New Zealanders were shocked when contaminated drinking water sickened more than 5,000 people in the small town of Havelock North, with a population of 14,000. A government inquiry found that sheep faeces were the likely source of bacterial pathogens, which entered an aquifer when heavy rain flooded surrounding farmland.

A second phase of the inquiry identified six principles of international drinking water security that had been bypassed. Had they been followed, the drinking water contamination would have been prevented or greatly reduced.

Here, I ask if the approach recommended by the Havelock North inquiry to prevent drinking water contamination can be extended to reduce the impacts of nutrient contamination of freshwater ecosystems.




Read more:
We all live downstream – it’s time to restore our freshwater ecosystems


Freshwater degraded and in decline

Most measures of the ecological health and recreational value of New Zealand’s lowland rivers and lakes have been rated as degraded and still declining. Intensive agriculture often cops much of the blame, but primary industry exports remain the heart of New Zealand’s economy.

The challenge posed by this trade-off between the economy and the environment has been described as both enormous, and complex. Yet it is a challenge that New Zealand’s government aims to tackle, and continues to rate as a top public concern.

An important lesson from the Havelock North inquiry is that sometimes there is no recipe – no easy list of steps or rules we can take to work through a problem. Following existing rules resulted in a public health disaster. Instead, practitioners need to follow principles, and be mindful that rules can have exceptions.

For freshwater, New Zealand has a similar problem with a lack of clear actionable rules, and I’ve mapped a direct link between the six principles of drinking water security and corresponding principles for managing nutrient impacts in freshwater.

Six principles for freshwater

Of the six principles of drinking water safety, the first is perhaps the most obvious: drinking water safety deserves a “high standard of care”. Similarly, freshwater nutrient impact management should reflect a duty of care that mirrors the scale of impacts. Our most pristine freshwater, like Lake Taupo, and water on the verge of tipping into nearly irreversible degradation, deserve the greatest effort and care.

Second, drinking water safety follows a clear logic from the starting point: “protecting the integrity of source water is paramount”. For nutrient impact management in freshwater, we must reverse this and focus on a more forensic analysis along flowpaths to the source of excess nutrients entering water. Our current approach of using estimates of sources is not convincing when tracers could point to sources in the same way DNA can help identify who was at a crime scene. We must link impacts to sources.

Third, drinking water safety demands “multiple barriers to contamination”. For freshwater, we’re better off taking a similar but different approach – maximising sequential reductions of contamination. There are at least three main opportunities, including farm management, improving drains and riparian vegetation, and enhancing and restoring wetlands. If each is 50% effective at reducing contaminants reaching waterways, the three are as good as a single barrier that reduces contamination by 90%. The 50% reductions are likely to be much more achievable and cost effective.

Managing hot spots and hot moments

The fourth principle of drinking water safety was perhaps the most dramatic failure in the Havelock North drinking water crisis: “change precedes contamination”. Despite a storm and flood reaching areas of known risk for contaminating the water supply, there were no steps in place to detect changing conditions that breached the water supply’s classification as “secure” and therefore safe.

A similar, but inverted principle can keep nutrients on farm, where we want them, and keep them out of our water. Almost all processes that lead to nutrient excess and mobilisation, as well as its subsequent removal, occur in hot spots and hot moments.

This concept means that when we look, we find that roughly 90% of excess nutrients come from less than 10% of the land area, or events that represent less than 10% of time. We can identify these hot spots and hot moments, and classify them into a system of control points that are managed to limit nutrient contamination of freshwater.

Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake, has a nitrogen cap and trade programme in place, which allocates farmers individual nitrogen discharge allowances.
from Shutterstock, CC BY-SA

Establishing clear ownership

A fifth principle for drinking water seems obvious: “suppliers must own the safety of drinking water”. Clear ownership results in clear responsibility.

Two world-leading cap-and-trade schemes created clear ownership of nutrient contaminants reaching iconic water bodies. One is fully in place in the Lake Taupo catchment, and another is still under appeal in the Lake Rotorua catchment.

These schemes involved government investment of between NZ$70 million and NZ$80 million to “buy out” a proportion of nutrients reaching the lakes. This cost seems unworkable across the entire nation. Will farmers or taxpayers own this cost, or is there any way to pass it on to investors in new, higher-value land use that reduces nutrient loss to freshwater? A successful example of shifting to higher value has been conversions from sheep and beef farming to vineyards.

As yet, the ownership of water has made headlines, but remains largely unclear outside Taupo and Rotorua when it comes to nutrient contaminants. Consideration of taxing the use of our best water could be much more sensible with a clearer framework of ownership for both water and the impacts of contaminants.

The final principle of drinking water safety is to “apply preventative risk management”. This is a scaled approach that involves thinking ahead of problems to assess risks that can be mitigated at each barrier to contamination.

For nutrient management in water, a principled approach has to start with the basic fact that water flows and must be managed within catchments. From this standpoint, New Zealand has a good case for leading internationally, because regional councils govern the environment based on catchment boundaries.

Within catchments we still have a great deal of work to do. This involves understanding how lag effects can lead to a legacy of excess nutrients. We need to manage whole catchments by understanding, monitoring and managing current and future impacts in the entire interconnected system.

The ConversationIf we can focus on these principles, government, industry, researchers, NGOs and the concerned public can build understanding and consensus together, enabling progress towards halting and reversing the declining health and quality of our rivers and lakes.

Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Great Barrier Reef report to UN shows the poor progress on water quality


Jon Brodie, James Cook University

The Australian and Queensland governments have delivered their progress report to the UN on the Reef 2050 Plan to ensure the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef.

The report focuses on water quality, and managing pollution runoff, but only deals in a superficial way with the other preeminent issue for the reef – climate change.

It shows recent progress on water quality has been slow, and ultimately we will not meet water quality targets without major further investments.

Progress?

The progress report claims some success in managing water quality through improved practices in sugarcane cultivation under the SmartCane program, and in rangeland grazing.

But actual reductions in sediment and nutrients loads to the reef over the last two years have been very small, as shown in the Reef Report Card 2015. This contrasts with the first five years of Reef Plan (2008-2013) where there was modest progress, as you can see below.


Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2015

The positive news out of the Report Card was that grain cropping and non-banana horticulture were doing well, but these are the industries we have little robust data on.

And there’s been little progress towards adequate management practices in sugarcane and rangeland grazing as well as gully remediation in the large dry tropics catchments of the Burdekin, Fitzroy and Normanby.

The specific actions and funding promised in this area over the next five years mentioned in the progress report which have some real substance are:

  1. Direct a further A$110 million of Reef Trust funding towards projects to improve water

  2. Bring forward the review of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan and set new scientifically based pollutant load targets

  3. Invest A$33 million of Queensland government funding into two major integrated projects

  4. Better prioritise of water quality as a major theme in Reef 2050 Plan.

What we need to do

However these fall far short of the real requirements to meet water quality targets on the reef, set out in the Reef 2050 Plan and the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan.

The best estimate is that meeting water quality targets by 2025 will cost A$8.2 billion. Other estimates suggest we’ll need at least A$5-10 billion over the next ten years.

If we assume that about A$4 billion is needed over the next five years, the amounts mentioned in the progress report (perhaps A$500-600 million at most) are obviously totally inadequate.

There is thus almost no chance the targets will be reached at the nominated time.

This reality has been clearly acknowledged by Dr David Wachenfeld, the Director of Reef Recovery at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. In fact the current progress towards the targets is so poor that we will not even get close.

The actions actually needed to manage water quality for the Great Barrier Reef are well known and have been published in the Queensland Science Taskforce Report
and scientific papers.

The most important of these are:

  1. Allocate sufficient funding (A$4 billion over the next five years)

  2. Use the legislative powers already available to the Australian government under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act (1975) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) to regulate agriculture and other activities in the reef’s water catchment

  3. Examine seriously the need for land use change in the reef catchment. For example, we may need to look at shifting away from more intensive forms of land use such as cropping, which produce more pollutants per hectare, to less intensive activities such as beef grazing, forestry or conservation uses

  4. Continue to improve land management in sugarcane, beef grazing and horticulture but acknowledge the need to extend these programs. We also need better practices in urban and coastal development

  5. Critically examine the economics and environmental consequences of the further expansion of intensive agriculture in the reef’s catchment as promoted under the Australian government’s Northern Australian Development Plan

Progress on water quality management for the Great Barrier Reef, as clearly reported in the 2015 Report Card is poor. There is little chance we will reach the water quality targets in the next ten years, without upping our game.

The Conversation

Jon Brodie, Professorial Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Queensland commits to fixing water quality in the Great Barrier Reef


Karen Hussey, The University of Queensland; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland, and Robin Smale, The University of Queensland

Current measures are not enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef, according to experts in a government report released today.

After a year of careful analysis, the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce has delivered its final report to the Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles. This is part of efforts to resource the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which was designed to meet the challenges facing the reef.

The report is part of the response to the United Nations’ concerns that the reef is in danger of irreparable damage – with declining water quality from farming and land-use change being a major driver. The reef narrowly missed being listed as “in danger” in 2015.

The Queensland government has committed A$90 million over the next four years specifically for water quality. The federal government has also committed funding, but it remains to be seen how much will be directed specifically to water quality concerns.

The report recommends the money should be directed at understanding and beginning to reverse the impact of sediment and nutrient from rivers flowing into the Great Barrier Reef.

By any degree, the taskforce has done well in terms of bringing together a wide range of opinions and perspectives on a potentially contentious issue — views that are unified around the report’s conclusions.

While the report is not about climate change, climate change is critically important to whether the plan will ultimately succeed or fail. Stronger storms, floods, droughts and underwater heatwaves will all make the task of solving the water quality issue even harder.

So there is an assumption that we will beat the climate change challenge through mechanisms such as the international commitments that Australia agreed to under the Paris Agreement in December 2015.

Starting to reverse the damage

The Great Barrier Reef and its river catchment are bigger than Italy. With problems going back over 100 years, A$90 million is not going to fix all of the problems, but it can start to significantly reverse the damage.

The Queensland government has committed to ambitious water quality targets adopted in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan — for instance, reducing nitrogen runoff by 80% and sediment by 50% across the key catchments of the Wet Tropics and the Burdekin by 2025. As many have noted, these targets will not be achieved under current practice — even if farmers fully adopt best management practices — and the taskforce report agrees.

Angry voices on soapboxes won’t solve this monumental challenge. That will only come about through inclusive and considered processes — it needs a long-term, sustained and coordinated reef-wide strategy.

We must redefine how we manage — and therefore resource — the Great Barrier Reef system, from the ecosystems that thrive in it to the industries and communities that depend on it for the long term. That strategy should coordinate all existing but separate approaches.

We’ve been here before

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it — Australia has been here before with a complex environmental problem that crosses multiple borders. Particularly in the past 15 years, state and federal governments have attempted to undo a century of mismanagement in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Although water quantity is the issue in the basin, as opposed to water quality in the Great Barrier Reef, there are similarities.

The two systems are a similar size — the Murray-Darling Basin covers a million square kilometres, and the Great Barrier Reef half-a-million sq km. In both cases, productive industries such as farming cotton or cane closely interact with valuable ecological systems. Overall, they produce billions of dollars of annual revenue from food production, tourism and other industries.

In each case, international pressure (the RAMSAR convention on wetlands in the Murray-Darling, UNESCO for the reef) have played very significant roles in encouraging responsible actions from Australia.

Billions of dollars have been spent on the Murray-Darling — and similar investment is probably required for the Great Barrier Reef catchments. While action within the Murray-Darling system hasn’t been (and still isn’t) perfect, we can learn much from the experience.

Where to from here?

In our opinion, and drawing on the experiences in the Murray-Darling, the following principles should be core to any strategy for the reef.

First, recognise that a significant shift is required in how we manage and develop land next to the Great Barrier Reef. While this is politically, economically and socially difficult, the fallout will be greater if we don’t get this right.

Farmers must be enabled and supported to care for the land to deliver both economic outcomes and ecosystem services. They are the stewards of our natural capital as well as key contributors to our economy.

We’ll also need to take a small proportion of land out of production to form riparian strips, and incentives will need to be established to ensure the careful use of fertiliser, better use of cover crops, and the like. Again, these initiatives are occurring now, but we need to adopt a whole-of-system approach that corrals these actions into a coherent strategy.

The efficiencies introduced through the National Water Initiative and later the Murray-Darling Basin Plan did achieve such a shift there.

Second, acknowledge that nothing we do to address water quality issues makes sense if we don’t also address climate change as a major source of the problem. Any strategy to protect the reef has to include meaningful action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and vice versa. Solving the climate issue only to let the reef down on the water quality issue doesn’t make any sense either.

Third, full and enduring cooperation and coordination between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments are essential. Anything else risks duplication, redundancy, confusion and, more than likely, a monumental waste of money.

The political heat in the lead-up to the National Water Initiative, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the 2007 Water Act served only to diminish the opportunities for a lasting and meaningful solution to excessive water allocation in the basin.

Fourth, in support of the cooperative federalist approach, a statutory authority that oversees the implementation of the strategy — with appropriate financial incentives and regulatory powers — will be necessary. This authority would operate across Queensland river catchment and estuarine regions. We would argue that this should be a separate entity to GBRMPA, which already has its hands full managing the reef.

One of the successes from efforts in water reform was the National Water Commission, which played a crucial role in the implementation of the National Water Initiative. Its subsequent demise was regrettable.

Fifth, well-designed, market-based mechanisms work. Just as some efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are cheaper than others, we need to know which measures that reduce water quality are most cost-effective. If designed correctly, these mechanisms have the potential to drive innovation and game-changing ideas.

A water quality “trading scheme” should be explored. If done properly, such a market could prove to be enormously beneficial to farmers as well as the reef.

Finally, make sure the strategy has the resources to get the job done. While throwing money at the problem won’t solve it on its own (the billions spent in the Murray-Darling Basin proved that), the challenge will demand significant resources over the coming decade.

Such finance need not come from governments alone. If the principles above are implemented in a way that provides transparency and certainty to the market, then the private sector may be able to contribute.

These are the first steps of a journey that is critical for the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef. As the taskforce stresses, this is a journey that will require clever policy that adapts to a dynamic world.

The reforms to address the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin were triggered by the Millennium Drought. The recent coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef should inspire the same urgency.

And, if so, let’s hope that we are now truly on a pathway to a future for the Great Barrier Reef where its people, industries and ecosystems thrive into the future.

The Conversation

Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, and Robin Smale, Visiting fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cuts to WaterNSW’s science staff will put Sydney’s water quality at risk


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The recent axing of five of the six senior scientists charged with protecting the health and safety of Sydney’s drinking water has understandably created concerns.

This follows last year’s merger of the New South Wales State Water Corporation and the Sydney Catchment Authority, creating a single body called WaterNSW to oversee water for the entire state. Later in the year the newly created agency suffered around 80 job cuts.

Domestic water supply systems are generally managed in ways that eliminate or reduce any possible risk to water quality. It appears to be problematic that the new agency loses its specific focus on Sydney’s water supply at the same time that it loses its most knowledgeable and experienced staff.

Water big deal

Sydney has Australia’s biggest and most complex domestic water supply network. In 2013-14 the city’s 4.5 million inhabitants used 536,607 million litres of water – roughly equivalent to an Olympic swimming pool of water every hour.

The challenge of supplying the greater Sydney population with clean, safe and reliable water has not always been met. In 1998, Sydneysiders were forced to boil their drinking water when the network was infected with Cryptosporidium and Giardia, after heavy rains washed these chlorine-resistant parasites into the water supply.

The pathogens were detected and nobody became seriously ill. Nevertheless the incident was a great embarrassment for the state government and tarnished Sydney Water’s coveted reputation for water cleanliness and safety.

The subsequent inquiry recommended that the catchments and water supply infrastructure become the responsibility of a separate agency, leading to the creation of the Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA) in 1999.

Science plan

The inquiry also pointed to a lack of scientific certainty about the sources of water supply contaminants, and how they should be dealt with. So the SCA developed an in-house team of scientists, and commissioned others from CSIRO and universities, to gather the expertise needed to provide safe and reliable water in the face of factors such as droughts, deluges, pollution and pathogens.

This scientific effort was no mean feat, given the size of Sydney’s water infrastructure and the SCA’s modest workforce of fewer than 300 staff. Sydney’s catchments collect water from an area covering 16,000 square km of land west and south of the city. The water is stored in 21 dams, including the massive Warragamba Dam. These are linked to consumers by a complex array of pipelines, tunnels and other infrastructure.

What’s more, the catchments themselves are extensively developed. More than 100,000 people (and many domesticated animals) live in the region. Towns such as Katoomba, Lithgow, Goulburn, Moss Vale, Bowral and Berrima all discharge their treated sewage waste into catchment waterways.

As a result, Sydney’s water catchments have many potential sources of pathogens, including those from human and animal waste. A crucial part of the SCA’s research was to determine which of these contaminants poses a serious threat to humans.

The scientific research improved routine operational monitoring of the effectiveness of the multiple barriers that protect the quality of the water from the headwaters of the catchment through various storages, filtration and treatment systems, to the reticulated network of pipes to the consumer.

The SCA science team has undertaken and published some of the world’s most thorough research on the effects of subsidence from coal mining and its impacts on surface waters, such as Waratah Rivulet, an important waterway that feeds the Woranora Dam.

The research thoroughly documents the changes in surface water flows and chemistry as the mine subsidence fractures the sandstone strata. The freshly fractured sandstone “captures” some or all of the stream flow and a complex array of chemical reactions occur, resulting in increased salinity and concentrations of metals zinc, nickel and cobalt. It is less clear how mining was able to inflict such environmental damage in such well-protected catchments.

Other sources of catchment water pollution received less attention from the SCA scientists even though coal mining in Sydney’s water catchments continues to generate considerable community concern. One example is Springvale Colliery in the Warragamba catchment near Lithgow. The mine has just been extended despite having been identified as the largest source of salinity in the Coxs River catchment, the second-biggest waterway that flows into Warragamba Dam.

Financial flows

Although the SCA was a government agency, it earned revenues of just over A$200 million in 2013-14 by selling water to its customers, principally Sydney Water. Rather than costing the NSW government money, it paid the state a dividend of A$27.9 million in 2013-14.

It remains to be seen whether WaterNSW, with its significantly smaller scientific team, can continue this vital research to protect Sydney’s catchments and infrastructure. I expect that its biggest customer, Sydney Water, and NSW Health will demand that rigorous scientific standards continue to be upheld.

In its previous incarnation, the Sydney Catchment Authority had as its motto “Healthy catchments, quality water – always”. It’s an important principle to uphold, and regional areas could benefit if this guiding principle pervades WaterNSW’s operations across the state. It needs to ensure that the high standards that protected Sydneysiders’ water are not sacrificed.

The Conversation

Ian Wright, Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Our New Look


The New Year has begun and what a great way for the Blog to celebrate the New Year – with a brand new look!

Some of the changes you may have noticed on the Blog include the following:

– The overall theme and appearance of the Blog has been given a major overhaul, with a fresh, new header image. It has taken a little bit of work to get the image right and hopefully you like it. The banner image also includes a bit of self promotion, with the website address appearing on it.

– The sharing options on for each post now include buttons for Tumbler, LinkedIn and Google+

– There is also an option for rating each Blog article.

I am always looking at ways to improve the Blog and 2012 will be no different. Hopefully there will be more regular and better quality articles on the way, with other improvements to the Blog pages and features as well. All this to come in 2012 and beyond.

Australian Wilderness Adventures: Episode 001 – Cathedral Rock National Park


Today I have uploaded the first episode in what will be a growing series of documentary-like videos for my YouTube channel (Kevin’s Wilderness Journeys). This series of videos will focus on national parks and reserves in Australia (especially New South Wales), with a view to providing useful information for people who may be interested in visiting the national park being considered in any particular episode. I am hoping to provide a preview of the main attractions in each national park and the facilities available for visitors. Hopefully these will whet the appetite for those who view the videos and provoke a desire to actually visit the national parks under consideration.

This first episode focuses on the Cathedral Rock National Park, with a look at the Cathedral Rock Track and the Woolpack Rocks Track. There will be more episodes to come, including episodes on Dorrigo National Park, Bongil Bongil National Park and Myall Lakes National Park – among others. Hopefully in time better equipment will improve the quality of videos available – but none-the-less, I do think the videos are useful to some degree as they are.

The actual size of the video I have in my archives for the first video is 2.85 GB, so there is a fair reduction in file size (and therefore quality) to get the videos online and within the limits of YouTube file sizes and length.

 

Check In: Day 2 of Holiday


I have had a most interesting couple of days on the road and in the bush. Currently I’m in a motel room at Woolgoolga, near Coffs Harbour on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, Australia. ‘Hardly the wild,’ I hear you say, and you’re quite right – it isn’t. The weather was beginning to change I noticed on the final leg of my day’s itinerary, so I decided to hide out in a motel room for the night – good decision, it’s pouring outside.

I won’t give all away – I’ll leave the main description of the holiday to the website – but just some of the ‘downlights’ of the first couple of days for this post.

I didn’t arrive at Cathedral Rock National Park until just on dark, but did get the tent up prior to darkness arriving – when it did, it was dark! The campfire took an eternity to get going as all of the timber was damp and by the time I got it started it was time for bed – all-be-it an early night (7.30pm). I had decided to not spend the money on replacing all of the gear I needed to replace for camping, following the loss of a lot of gear over the years due to storage, etc. I hadn’t done much in the way of bushwalking or camping for years due to injuries sustained in my car crash and a bad ankle injury, so I left it all a bit late. I figured that for this holiday I’d make do and replace the gear with quality gear before the next trip. In short, I’ll get by – but it would have been nice to have some good gear just the same. It was a very cold night let me tell you – and long.

When I reached the heights of my first walk today, standing on top of Cathedral Rock National Park, my digital camera decided to die on me. I knew there was something wrong with it during the ascent as it was really chugging away taking pictures. I did get a couple of reasonable panoramic shots on the top of Cathedral Rock before it died, so that was good. I took stills with the video camera I was using, so it wasn’t a complete loss. When I completed the Woolpack Rocks walk I made the trip to Coffs Harbour to seek a replacement and got one for a reasonable price. It’s just another compact and so I will also buy a digital SLR prior to my next trip I hope. My previous SLR was basically destroyed when the camera cap came off during a multiple day bushwalk and all manner of stuff got into it. It wasn’t digital so I didn’t bother repairing it.

So tomorrow – off to Dorrigo National Park I hope and several lengthy walks I haven’t done before. Hopefully the rain will clear.