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Seeking Answers from Science

Bay resource science at leading edge despite stretched funding

Keith Newman25 September 2017

Bay resource science at leading edge despite stretched funding.

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Data about Hawke’s Bay rivers, streams, land, air and ocean is increasingly being monitored, measured, managed, probed, prodded, collated and compared to meet more exacting central government environmental reporting standards … as well as public demand for improvement.

Despite budget and resource constraints and increasing pressure to deliver more comprehensive analysis, the environmental science team at Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) is punching above its weight and sits at the leading edge of groundwater, sediment and soil modelling.

The Tukituki catchment plan change, TANK groundwater modelling, and the upcoming Mohaka plan change are all being driven in part by new national freshwater management standards.

To cope with the demands HBRC has invested nearly $2.5 million to create comprehensive ground and surface water models of the aquifers, rivers and streams across the Heretaunga Plains and Ahuriri catchments.

Although water has dominated the headlines in recent years, land science is making a comeback with Hawke’s Bay taking the lead through an additional $2 million investment in land data collection and developing tools other regions will soon be clamouring for.

Until recently the majority of investment has gone into water quality, “now people are starting to realise that what you do on the land ends up in the water,” says Dr Barry Lynch, HBRC’s principal land scientist.

“We’ve had things a little back to front…[but] if you tend to the land, the water quality will pretty much take care of itself.”

HBRC works alongside Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), including Landcare Research, and now scientists are coming from Waikato and Auckland councils “to see how we measure our riparian margins, river banks, sediments and wetlands,” says Lynch.

“For a smaller council we’re right at the front of monitoring and measuring land.”

Stretching resources
The science team has sought budget and resource boosts several times in recent years and engages in a continual juggling act for funding, particularly when “you approach limits at the intersection of competing demands”, says HBRC’s resource management group manager, Iain Maxwell.

Community expectations are increasing, along with the sophistication and complexity involved in policy development. “We have had to prioritise and triage our investment in this area and rationalise based on what we can afford.”

HBRC’s environmental science team has 31 full-time staff and three part-timers involved in a range of investigations and monitoring programmes from farm productivity and ecological restoration to state of the environment reporting.

Most work in water quality and ecology, with three new players added in the past three years to cope with the Tukituki plan change. There are six dedicated to groundwater, including a modeller, with others focused on fish and bugs, weed growth, climate change and land science.

Among their tasks is to monitor recreational water quality of beaches, streams and rivers in conjunction with the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, which is responsible for notifying when the water is unsafe for swimming or fishing.

Dr Lynch, a land science generalist, was on his own when he started seven and a half years ago; a new staff member added in June took his team to three and a half. He believes more will be needed.

Environmental Science can call on external contractors and consultancies, collaborate with other regions or seek sampling assistance from HBRC’s engineering, operations or open spaces teams.

The Havelock North water crisis was an unexpected call on resources. “We didn’t have a budget, so we covered that from reserves and a certain amount of contingency. Councillors decide how they’re going to replenish those reserves and deal with the shortfall in some of our budgeted work,” says environmental science manager, Stephen Swabey.

For the first time, the science team has guidance from HBRC’s Science and Technology Strategy 2015-2025, affirming its crucial role and the need for baseline monitoring to resolve a range of challenges.

The strategy urges improved collaboration with other researchers; striking a balance between in-house and external resources; and the need to update and inform planning to comply with government directives. It highlights the importance of translating data into policy development in high priority areas like water quality and quantity, as well as coastal, marine and land science where the bar is being raised for reporting and monitoring.

Furthermore, decisions and support information should be easy to understand and available using a range of tools “including social media”, so the community is more aware of the impacts of HBRC’s “choices and behaviours”.

That said, Maxwell concurred with BayBuzz when we expressed frustration at not being able to locate a copy of the strategy, which six months after publication, proved not to have been uploaded to HBRC’s messy website.

And there’s more work on the way with the National Environment and Conservation Roadmap, led by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Ministry for the Environment, plus a major marine science project led by the Ministry for Primary Industries and DOC starting next year.

The team may also have to ramp up its game if national standards for air quality are raised with less tolerance for smaller polluting particles than at present.

Supercomputer power

To gear up for the Tukituki plan change, HBRC went from quarterly to monthly ground and surface water sampling to try and achieve the right balance between recreational use, ecosystem health, safe drinking water, decreased algal growth and primary and processing use.

Landowners and communities, particularly in the Central Hawke’s Bay catchment, have been consulted with; farmers urged to keep stock away from waterways, keep better records of nutrient use and work on environmental management plans.

Alongside the Tukituki work, four years ago the science team began the Tutaekuri, Ahuriri, Ngaruroro and Karamū (TANK) process.

The goal is to understand quality limits, minimum flows, allocation mechanisms and the impacts of nutrients on land across the Heretaunga aquifers, catchments, wetlands and estuaries.

An integral part of the TANK process is HBRC’s Coupled Surface Groundwater Model, which Iain Maxwell says is among the most sophisticated in the Southern hemisphere. “In fact… I would say we are right at the pointy end of modelling for integrated catchment management anywhere in the world.”

To date around $2 million has been invested in modelling alone, something Maxwell believes is fully justified considering the outcomes.

A ‘dashboard’ was created to bring all the data together using computer modelling and geographic information systems (GIS) so “you can tweak and pull levers” to see what happens when changes are made.

Desktop overload

Using desktop computers to gain a more “nuanced understanding” of the highs and lows across the seasons was not going to be a starter, says Swabey, as they’d be chugging away continuously and unable to run more than five versions a week. Apart from the frustration if one model crashed, it was difficult to test or compare with real life observations as each change would require a re-run.

The Surface-Groundwater Model was created by a technical advisory panel which brought together “the best and brightest from concept to model production”, including ESR (Environment Science and Research), Lincoln Agritech, NIWA and GNS Science.

Swabey says the work was so significant an additional budget for contractors and consultants from Canada, Australia, and a large team from across New Zealand had to be approved in the annual plan.

At the heart of the project was modifying Modflow, an open source data engine and interface that has been around since the 1970s, so thousands of copies could run concurrently on Auckland University’s supercomputer.

The number of water monitoring and observation sites were increased to about 800 to better gauge how land was being managed, including irrigation, stock control and waste and storm water.

This included 39 observed ‘level loggers’ in bores, 30 for modelling, and keeping a watching brief on 21 other bores, along with pump tests from consent holders. HBRC undertook age dating and the testing of river flows, levels and chemistry.

In the 2015-16 year alone over 9 million bits of environmental monitoring data were collected.

Question time

Questions posed in the modelling include what the impact would be on the environment if more water was taken out than naturally replenished, and whether abstractions can continue to grow without intervention?

Do we have enough water available for growing crops, irrigating pastures, spraying water to fight frost, processing, drinking and residential use; and how will that impact surface water flow and the river environment to ensure species of bugs and fish survive?

Will people have access to water for kayaking, fishing and general enjoyment of our rivers? If some activities are having an impact on minimum flow, when do consent holders need to stop extracting groundwater or taking water from the river?

“Instead of having one result at the end of the day you have several thousand results, and we can use the best result to test whether it represents reality effectively,” says Swabey.

There’s a separate feed into “an economics discussion” showing potential impacts on agricultural and horticultural sectors, and a climate change component looking at future scenarios such as the impact of rainfall changes on the land data.

Because Modflow is open source, and various partners have collaborated, the TANK results will be made freely available to others, including the Hastings and Napier councils and groups of irrigators like the Twyford global consent members.

Swabey believes it’ll be invaluable for managing resources, enabling more efficient consent applications and informing those concerned about environmental impacts.

There’s also strong interest from other regions who’ll get to see the model in operation when it’s showcased at the Hydrological Society meeting in Napier in November.

The TANK draft report is due for release in December after community input, although some close to the process suggests it’s likely to continue well beyond that deadline.

Mohaka and marine

Following TANK, there’s the Mohaka catchment plan change where “a more integrated resource management framework” is being sought. This will be designed to protect “the high ecological, cultural, recreational and scenic significance” of the area, including the effects of intensive land use in the Tararua headwater and upper Mohaka and Tararua rivers.

Then the science scene will shift again to how land and surface water activities impact on the marine environment, with the team working in conjunction with commercial and recreational fishers and tangata whenua.

This is partly being driven by the Ministry of Primary Industries and DOC, which are planning strategic investment in marine science trends, impacts and potential interventions in 2018.

Maxwell says there’s been weak investment nationally in the marine area and HBRC will be re-setting its own efforts with a “far more significant investment” aimed at producing a regional marine strategy.

He wants a better understanding of the level of sediment ending up in the ocean, what happens to it once it’s there and “what we would do differently to improve this”.

He insists there’s far too much emphasis on nitrates, which he says is “child’s play” compared to managing erosion and sediment, which is difficult to control, hard to regulate and pervasive across the landscape.

Sediment is the “master stressor for freshwater and marine” as it washes into rivers, streams and lakes through deforestation and erosion, altering and degrading habitats and then washing out to sea where it has a similar impact.

Senior coastal quality scientist Anna Madarasz-Smith is currently negotiating with owners of large vessels that operate within HBRC’s 12 nautical mile jurisdiction to tow an instrument package so we can have a more detailed picture of how outflow from the “seven major river systems” might be impacting marine life and habitats.

She also wants better data from outside the 12-mile zone, including the impact of “oceanic upwelling” or nutrient or phosphorous dense water that can cause algal blooms.

Hitching a ride for its instruments will help HBRC balance its own financial “nutrient budget”, and determine whether nutrients are coming from the land or industrial or natural processes.

 

“For many years we thought the oceans were so big we couldn’t impact them; now we know differently and have to ensure that what we do from the mountains to the sea doesn’t have an adverse impact on the coastal environment,” says Madarasz-Smith.

She says the council has had nearshore data for 11 years which generally shows our coastal waters are well within water quality expectations, “but we can’t keep assuming if we don’t know what’s coming in from the coast”.
Closer to the coast, the Hawke’s Bay Water Quality Information (HAWQi) coastal monitoring buoy was recently returned to the sea near Whirinaki after a major overhaul.

The distinctive red and yellow buoy monitors ocean currents, with sensors for water temperature, salinity, clarity, tides and weather. The upgrade includes a newly installed 15 metre sensor to better understand “integrated dissolved oxygen levels” and the dynamics of algal blooms. The sensors stream live through HBRC’s website.

The goal “within the next couple of years”, says Madarasz-Smith, is to have a micro buoy that can be temporarily deployed in other areas.

Sediment insights

Land scientist Dr Barry Lynch believes council’s investment in the S-map soil mapping database and SedNetNZ, the regional sediment model, will also make ocean and river management easier.

SedNetNZ helps identify different types of erosion (wind, hill country or riverbank), where the sediment is coming from, where it’s going, how much is being produced, with predictions based on real data. “It’s a really valuable model,” says Lynch.

S-map, now on the Internet, covers about 1.4 million hectares, enabling users to click anywhere in the region and get a three-page report on soil quality and suitability.

“We’re one of the few regions to have an S-map but eventually the whole country will have to have this,” says Lynch.

It’s based on satellite imaging and in-ground testing with partner Landcare Research. The process of collecting and interpreting data for the models has been “extremely expensive”; over a million dollars for S-map and around $500,000 for SedNetNZ.

Lynch is HBRC’s representative on the S-map governing body, helping guide its development and growth. “My first thought is always how it will benefit Hawke’s Bay.”

Ground cover

We’re ahead of the game because Landcare Research’s expert soil mapper, Sharn Hainsworth, has been dedicated to this region for the past four years.

Previously soil mapping meant digging a hole, then moving a kilometre in each compass direction within a grid system to continue sampling; the more scientific method delivers five times more detail.

While Lynch says holes are still dug to corroborate the data, the new approach is based on landforms. “We can estimate what sort of soil should be on a south facing hill with sediment and a history of vegetation cover and other environmental factors.”

After detailed examination the data can be extrapolated to similar landforms using digital elevation models (DEMs) which look at topography “lumps and bumps, rainfall, known history and geology”. That’s translated into what that soil type might mean for drainage, nitrogen or phosphorous retention or erosion susceptibility. “The more you know about the soil the better decisions you can make about how to manage it.”

Lynch says technology is improving each year with remote imagery, satellite mapping, lysimeters, which test water volume, soil quality, nutrients and chemistry, and drones equipped with sensors to detect inefficiencies in crops.

While land science can now deliver more detail, he says “you need data sets over 10-20 years for the long game”.


Science not soothsaying

The environmental science team provides monthly technical and State of the Environment reports with the next five-year summary due in 2018. HBRC is facing demands for more precise and accurate predictions all the time, but no one should expect “unequivocal” answers tomorrow.

Science, says Iain Maxwell, must be “fit for purpose for informing a discussion” and not used as an excuse for delaying decisions or turned into a “political football”, which can happen if HBRC doesn’t provide credible data.

He and the science team want more informed and sensible “adult conversations” and public discussions about managing natural resources. While you can have a principled or philosophical view on air or water quality or how much you take out of a river or aquifer, including for water bottling, there must be a solid evidence base “informed by robust science not emotion”.

So scientists must inform policy-making. But they also have a role to play in removing complexity and uncertainty when communicating scientific understanding to lay people, a task Maxwell concedes HBRC has not been particularly good at.

Keith Newman25 September 2017

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