Water quality

AgResearch teams are involved in a number of research programmes that are seeking to reduce the leakage of contaminants from farms to waterways. Particular focus is placed on minimising transfers of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and faecal micro-organisms from soil to water.

This form of “non-point source pollution” is recognised as an important causal factor contributing to the deterioration of water quality in many parts of the country.  In sensitive catchments these pollutants can seriously compromise many of the important community values that New Zealanders have identified as being important to them e.g. healthy trout fisheries, good stream and river habitat values, safe for swimming or drinking, aesthetically pleasing, etc.

Whilst there are no magical “silver bullets” on the horizon, research has identified a number of important management practices and technologies that can significantly reduce farming’s footprint on water quality.  Some of these technologies are now regarded as standard Good Management Practice for farming activities and have been embodied in Industry recommendations e.g. the riparian and effluent management practices recommended under the Sustainable Dairy: Water Accord.

Other next-generation management systems and technologies are being actively pursued with funding support from a number of organisations and commercial companies such as MBIE, the Pastoral21 research investors, Ballance-AgriNutrients, DairyNZ and MPI’s Sustainable Farming Fund.

Because water quality issues and policy frameworks are discussed and developed at a community level, but mitigation actions usually take place at a farm level, the research teams have an important role in informing individuals and communities of the effects of farming activities on the wider environment. This role of translator between individuals and communities is becoming increasingly important as:

  1. the pastoral industries increasingly recognise the off-site impacts of their farming operations, and
  2. the wider community deliberates the environmental and economic trade-offs associated with the on-going intensification of farming and the costs of implementing good environmental practices.

The research teams bring together a number of specialist and generalist skills that seek to develop practical steps for improving water quality. Dr Ross Monaghan specialises in nutrient cycling in grazed pastures, catchment studies and cost:benefit analysis of mitigation practices; Dr Richard McDowell specialises in P and sediment losses from farms and catchments; Dr Richard Muirhead specialises in faecal microbial cycling and losses from farming systems.  These scientists are ably supported by a team of highly experienced research associates who manage the many field and laboratory trials undertaken by these scientists.

Many of the projects undertaken by these researchers are done in close collaboration with research partners from NIWA, Lincoln University, Massey University, Landcare, ESR and with colleagues based in the Innovative Farming Systems group of AgResearch.