RiverWatch - improving water health through innovation

A father and son farming duo in the Wairarapa are combating water pollution with a sophisticated new piece of technology.

James Muir and father Grant have partnered up with Callaghan Innovation to install a real-time freshwater monitor at the Pahaoa river, which runs directly through their farm.

The device, called ‘RiverWatch’, is equipped with unique probes, which measure the water’s pH, temperature, conductivity, turbidity, and level of dissolved oxygen. Any significant changes in these levels will trigger a system alert, sent directly to the owner, allowing them to respond quickly to things like contamination events and nutrient spikes.

Speaking with Jesse Mulligan on Radio NZ this moring, James explained how the system gives a more in-depth, holistic evaluation of water quality than previous methods of river analysis:

“Traditionally with water sampling we’re taking a little snapshot of that piece of water at that particular time. That doesn’t really tell us a lot about what’s actually happening in the water, for instance: what are the natural cycles? What are the systems of flux and change going on in the river? Real-time monitoring allows us to answer these questions.”

RiverWatch has its origins in the 2010 documentary “River Dog” (co-directed by James), about a man fighting to keep his farm and the river flowing through it clean and healthy, despite the negligence of neighbours who continually encroach on his land.

The success of the film inspired the Muirs to delve further into how they could address New Zealand’s water issues, culminating in the creation of a system they feel gives greater insight into the complex nature of our rather unique rivers:

“As we worked on the project we realised how unscientific the water quality data being collected by authorities was. The data was not robust because it was collected at a single point in time and did not reflect the overall condition of where the sample was taken from. We also discovered that turbidity (sedimentation) was the primary cause of habitat loss for aquatic species. In fact, New Zealand has ten times the world average of sedimentation. To the extent that water quality testing instruments from other countries, costing tens of thousands of dollars, did not work in our extremely muddy waters.” (Sourced from www.riverwatch.nz)

In comparison, they say, the RiverWatch system is, “low cost and robust”, “built in NZ and designed for NZ conditions” and “constructed using quality components to withstand the challenging freshwater landscape.”

Whether RiverWatch can validate these impressive claims will soon be seen. Catchment-wide field trials funded by the Gulf innovation Fund (GIFT) and Callaghan Innovation are planned for Auckland’s Clevedon Valley, following which, the product will be validated and made available for purchase (James hopes around April next year).

The Muirs envision RiverWatch being used, not only by regional councils, but landowners, community groups, citizen scientists, and anyone else across the country interested in monitoring their own waterways.

They say the technology has come out of a need to address serious issues with regional water quality in New Zealand, an problem they’ve experienced first hand:

“We’ve seen what’s been happening with New Zealand’s water and we’ve experienced it first hand, not just from reading the reports but from actually watching the river (Pahaoa) die. That was heartbreaking. It really inspired us to get on with this and do something about it.”

To listen to this morning’s interview on Radio NZ, click here.

For more on RiverWatch, visit https://riverwatch.nz/.