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Scientists Dip Into Rivers

Dr John Quinn sets up an experiment in a stream
to investigate changing food resources

A team of New Zealand and international researchers is finding out how the country’s rivers and streams respond to contaminants, changes in land use and riverbank management.

“These issues are becoming increasingly important for New Zealand as we intensify our use of land and water, and as the climate gradually changes,” says project leader John Quinn, of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Ltd.

The project will set out to understand what goes on under the surface, and the effect of human activity – such as farming and forestry – on waterways. Results will be fed into a computer to develop “predictive” models that could simulate how a stream’s ecology would react to a change in environmental factors.

Other research will include working out ways to repair damage done to waterways and how to change management practices.

Ultimately, the research will increase understanding of how human beliefs and actions influence river ecosystems and their management.

British, American, Australian and New Zealand scientists are collaborating in the project as are staff from New Zealand government and local body agencies. The project is funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology

“The overseas colleagues bring novel techniques, models and experience,” Dr Quinn says. “Dr Stuart Findlay, of the Institute for Ecosystem Studies, New York, has visited twice. He brings expertise in environmental microbial ecology to help us unravel the processes by which land-use alters stream water quality, particularly the use of ‘exoenzyme fingerprinting’. This identifies catchment sources of dissolved organic carbon that influences water colour, energy supply for food webs, and toxicity of land-derived contaminants.”

Other research includes working out ways to repair damage done to waterways and how to change management practices. A whole farm experiment on sustainable land management of hill country is being conducted at the Whatawhata Research Centre, an AgResearch site owned by Tainui. This provides a practical test of the programme’s predictive models and understandings. It also links the research with collaborating end-users, and social, agricultural and terrestrial researchers.

“This collaboration will allow us to determine how sustainable land management can improve the ‘triple-bottom line’ of social, economic and environmental quality,” Dr Quinn says.

Findings from the project are expected to help policy-makers, technical advisers, fish and game groups, farmers, foresters, iwi, researchers and the public to better understand river ecosystems.

“That would allow sustainable land management that maintains the ecological functions, bio-diversity and human services of rivers,” Dr Quinn says. “It will help protect our most valuable resource for future generations.”

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