Kiwis are being encouraged to become citizen scientists to check the health of their own lakes, rivers and streams.
Fresh waterways are monitored at hundreds of sites by Niwa and regional council staff, but a study is looking at whether this checking can be widened with the help of community groups, landowners and others.
"If you think of streams and rivers as blood vessels in the body, our regional councils have only enough resources to take samples at a few key arteries - and we are quite keen to get community groups monitoring the veins and capillaries as well," said study leader Dr Richard Storey, of Niwa's freshwater ecology group.
Hundreds of environmental groups were working to restore waterways, and getting them involved in monitoring could result in a far more detailed picture of the state of lakes, rivers and streams, he said.
Volunteers would be given kits for checking indicators including bacteria, nutrients, oxygen, invertebrates, temperature and clarity.
Tests would be done at sites monitored by regional councils, enabling researchers to gauge the quality of the data collected.
Dr Storey said there had been concerns about the use of citizen science for serious purposes, "but that is exactly what we are trying to assess with our study".
"Yes, the data might be too variable, but our expectation is that with the right amount of training and a minimal amount of supervision, the data that comes back will be of good enough quality to help with regional freshwater planning and management.
"Our vision is that community groups, iwi groups and individual landowners will take an interest in their local streams and start collecting data."
For farmers, such monitoring could tell them what effect their activities, or mitigation measures such as riparian planting, were having on their farm waterways.
A report released last week said mass conversion of land to dairy was linked to deterioration of water quality because of the harmful run-off of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrate.
This year, a government report said more than half of all river recreational spots measured for faecal pollution and microbial water quality were unsafe to swim in.
Sherry River success
When the quality of the Sherry River was found to be so bad that it failed standards for bathing, local farmers were left shocked.
A decade on, pollution levels in the long-popular swimming spot in the Tasman region have been slashed by half, and it has become an example of what can be done with community collaboration.
A restoration effort that involved building bridges for cows, fencing and planting was last night singled out among winners of the New Zealand River Awards, run for the first time by Gareth Morgan's Morgan Foundation.
People keen to take part in the study can contact Dr Richard Storey here.