A new water monitoring invention developed in the Wairarapa promises huge savings to farmers and a billion dollar industry for the region – so what’s holding it up?
Hinakura farmer and environmentalist Grant Muir is founder of Water Action Initiative NZ (WAI NZ). In conjunction with Victoria University, Grant has developed RiverWatch, a water monitoring devise that is ground-breaking in both its capabilities and low production costs.
Designed for New Zealand conditions, it is left in the river to collect data every 15 minutes 24/7 including temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH level, turbidity, conductivity, with E. coli water-soluble nitrates and phosphates currently under development.
Solar panels mean it can be left for weeks in the water, and WiFi sends the GPS tagged data straight to a smartphone app, computer, or website, enabling immediate action as well as long term management.
The price tag when in full production will be around $2000 per unit whereas current water monitoring technology sells for $25,000 or more.
Grant believes farmers should not view RiverWatch as a threat but a tool that in future will save them many thousands of dollars.
He predicts that the cost of water monitoring is going to inevitably fall on farmers.
“You just have to follow the dots. Central government is putting all water measurements and controls on to regional councils who are not resourced, don’t have the money and don’t have the people or equipment. Very soon they will be charging for some form of water testing. Because of RiverWatch’s price and capabilities, it is suddenly within the realm of farmers to do their own water testing.”
He also says without very high levels of testing and data farmers could be wasting their money on improvements that don’t actually have any effect.
“Farmers want to make a change and manage their farms in an environmentally sustainable manner but without sound scientific data to base farm management investment on – which will cost thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars – it is inconceivable to expect farmers to pay for improvements that may or may not improve water quality.”
Only eight to 15 percent of New Zealand’s 450,000 kilometres of rivers, lakes and streams are tested for water quality. This is because current testing practise is expensive and time consuming.
“Testing for water soluble nitrates is very difficult and very expensive and you are not going to remedy this if regional councils can’t do the job properly.
“You have to have water monitors in the water 24/7 because the water changes dramatically over short periods of time from night to day – so you are not getting the picture unless you test the water every 15 minutes 24/7. This gives you a whole lot of information you haven’t otherwise got.”
Farmers must have robust and sound water quality data before they invest in improving water quality, Grant says.
“They must be able to monitor and audit their own on-farm water quality easily and affordably to fully engage in water restoration. Relying on regional councils and NIWA to do this will only increase on-farm costs and not produce the data sets required for farm management.
“RiverWatch can do its own monitoring so it doesn’t take up farmers’ time, and the beauty of this is that it networks with other monitors, all feeding into the same portal or a regional council website.
“Farmers will be able to use historical data to make wise management decisions on their farm to reduce nitrogen. That’s impossible without data.
“They won’t be wasting time spending money they don’t have to, and they will be spending money where it makes a difference.
“It also means people living in towns and cities will have to lift their game. When they wash their cars or pour their paint down the drain we will be able tack it and pin point the discharge.
“We can easily stake out the entire Ruamahanga River and be able to determine what level of impact agriculture is having compared to the towns for example.”
New Zealand is not the only country with these sorts of water issue, Grant points out.
“Nitrate is a problem all around the world where there is intensive agriculture. Worldwide market research shows the global potential for RiverWatch is $4.65 billion annually by 2025.”
In the immediate future, WAI NZ needs enough funding for final prototype testing and setting up a manufacturing plant in Masterton, selling RiverWatch throughout New Zealand.
“The speed to market is all about money. We could have the project going all over New Zealand by November for $500,000.”
WAI NZ has approached Fonterra, DairyNZ and Federated Farmers, none of whom have indicated they are prepared to support the project financially, Grant says. Beef & Lamb New Zealand has expressed some interest.
In the meantime WAI NZ has set up a “PledgeMe” page to raise funds – https://www.pledgeme.co.nz/projects/5218-riverwatch-making-a-big-splash-to-save-our-rivers
The first $50,000 will be spent on final prototype testing using farmers, iwi, citizen scientists, community groups and regional councils throughout New Zealand.
The next step is pre-production which will cost $100,000 and the final milestone is full-production for $200,000 plus.