Ensuring our water is clean enough to swim in is a major aspiration of a just-launched charitable foundation to help solve the country's biggest environmental challenges.

The Cawthron Foundation, created by our first science organisation, the Nelson-based Cawthron Institute, will raise funds toward public-good environmental science and scholarships for talented emerging scientists.

Its first chairman, former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Morgan Williams, said the foundation would tackle issues facing our land and water by using science to help maintain healthy ecosystems, reverse any damage already done and stop problems getting worse.

"Combining the expertise of top scientists at Cawthron with philanthropic support ensures essential research on land and in fresh water and marine environments is maintained as support from other sources waxes and wanes according to political priorities," he said.

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"The health and wealth of our natural environment, communities, business and region ultimately depends on it."

Cawthron freshwater scientist Dr Roger Young singled out the degradation of freshwater as our top environmental issue, and the foundation would strive toward having lakes and rivers fit for swimming, drinking and fishing.

The landmark Environment Aotearoa report released last month found declining water quality was one of the areas of greatest concern.

While water quality was very good in areas with indigenous vegetation and less intensive use of land, it was a different story in agricultural and urban areas where there was reduced water clarity and aquatic insect life, and higher levels of nutrients and harmful E.coli bacteria.

The greatest impact of excessive nutrients in rivers was nuisance slime and algae (periphyton) growth, which could impede river flows, block irrigation and water supply intakes, and smother riverbed habitats.

About 49 per cent of monitored river sites have enough nitrogen to trigger nuisance periphyton growth, as long as there was enough sunlight, phosphorus, and a lack of flood events for algae to bloom.

"Water is without doubt our most precious resource," Dr Young said.

"You can live without oil or gold, but you can't live without water."

Dr Williams said the new foundation's model was very similar to that used by most major universities and other New Zealand research institutes.

"We invite the public to partner with the Cawthron Foundation to ensure the issues that matter to us all are addressed - whether it's having enough clean water to swim in or drink, or ensuring healthy ecosystems for fish to thrive, these are things New Zealanders care deeply about, and it's important to us that they are given a strong focus."