Water - the universal solvent, the life-giving compound and perhaps the most complex and controversial environmental issue our country has seen for a long time.

Ever since the Land and Water Forum released its report saying that point-source pollution was disappearing and diffuse contaminants were blamed for our increasing water quality problems, economic and environmental interests have often been at odds over water management.

Regional councils have lacked the tools within the RMA to combat widespread water pollution and when accusations fly about the legitimacy of water testing, it gives those polluters who want to maintain the status quo an excuse for inaction.
With the recent launch of Land, Air and Water Aotearoa collaboration, there is finally one place where all the testing carried out by regional councils can be easily accessed.

They have also made a real effort to explain the complexities of water quality indicators that were previously difficult for people who don't have a science degree, like me, to understand.


So it is great to have all of this data. Data can be the carrot that feeds the people and the stick that whips those that misbehave. Data has allowed responsible farmers like Craige Mackenzie from Methven to drastically reduce phosphate use and scientists like Mike Joy use data to explain that the costs of cleaning up after inappropriate intensive land use are not taken into account when the economic benefits of farming are measured.

One activity that makes a difference to water quality is riparian restoration through planting native trees. Ever since Fonterra made the decision nearly two years ago (which I believe is our country's biggest industry-led environmental decision) to force farmers to fence off their waterways there has been more reason than ever to plant them out because it combats the otherwise inevitable weeds.

But for those of us who regularly coordinate riverside plantings, we face some big financial challenges: trees are not cheap and unless we have the appropriate scientists or experience on board we don't know what combination of trees will work best for particular soil types.

In this fight to improve our water quality, we need as many arrows in our quiver as possible and perhaps the unique collaboration at Lawa can help: They already have a credible, accessible and transparent set of well-designed online tools. I think it would be a great help to people restoring our riparian areas if they were able to have the specific areas they work tested by councils and independently verified as of right.

More results added to the website will continue to improve our understanding of water quality. But more importantly, officially certified results would enable groups to radically improve the way they report to funders and learn from the successes and failures of other projects. It will also provide ongoing motivation for the activity as projects - which are largely run by hardworking volunteers - continue down the vast stretches of waterways (especially when it inevitably comes time to rip out blackberry in the rain).

Although this proposition would involve investment on the part of The Ministry for the Environment and Regional Councils, they are used to water quality testing and the online tools are ready to go. It could be a one of the greatly needed game-changers for looking after our most precious natural asset.