Water quality trends in New Zealand rivers: 1989–2009

Abstract

Recent assessments of water quality in New Zealand have indicated declining trends, particularly in the 40 % of the country’s area under pasture. The most comprehensive long-term and consistent water quality dataset is the National Rivers Water Quality Network (NRWQN). Since 1989, monthly samples have been collected at 77 NRWQN sites on 35 major river systems that, together, drain about 50 % of New Zealand’s land area. Trend analysis of the NRWQN data shows increasing nutrient concentrations, particularly nitrogen (total nitrogen and nitrate), over 21 years (1989–2009). Total nitrogen and nitrate concentrations were increasing significantly over the first 11 years (1989–2000), but for the more recent 10-year period, only nitrate concentrations continued to increase sharply. Also, the increasing phosphorus trends over the first 11 years (1989–2000) levelled off over the later 10-year period (2000–2009). Conductivity has also increased over the 21 years (1989–2009). Visual clarity has increased over the full time period which may be the positive result of soil conservation measures and riparian fencing. NRWQN data shows that concentrations of nutrients increase, and visual clarity decreases (i.e. water quality declines), with increasing proportions of pastoral land in catchments. As such, the increasing nutrient trends may reflect increasing intensification of pastoral agriculture.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Ministry for the Environment for funding to conduct trend analysis, Graham McBride (NIWA) for advice on statistical analysis and internal review and Graham Bryers and the NIWA field teams for data collection and quality assurance.

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Correspondence to Deborah J. Ballantine.

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Ballantine, D.J., Davies-Colley, R.J. Water quality trends in New Zealand rivers: 1989–2009. Environ Monit Assess 186, 1939–1950 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-013-3508-5

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Keywords

  • Water quality
  • Rivers
  • New Zealand
  • Trends
  • Agriculture
  • Diffuse pollution