Ōtūwharekai Ashburton Lakes water quality results reinforce ongoing need for action

Hundreds of water samples taken from the Ōtūwharekai Ashburton Lakes and streams over the past year confirm that water quality remains a concern and reinforce that ongoing action is required.

The water monitoring results were presented to the Ashburton Water Zone Committee by Environment Canterbury and the Department of Conservation (DOC), who are part of the Ōtūwharekai Working Group to restore lake health and cultural values. This group is made up of representatives from rūnanga, councils, landowners, Fish & Game and central government agencies.

Reporting back on water quality

The findings showed negative and some positive changes across the different lakes and streams of this unique sub-alpine catchment, said Dr Tim Davie, Director of Science at Environment Canterbury.

“These are small to medium-sized lakes and streams in the high country, which means results often fluctuate from year-to-year due to climate conditions and other variables. However, the results generally show increasing nutrients and algae, which are causing worsening water quality over the past ten years.

“Work is already underway to reduce nutrients entering the waterways from farming activity, and the nearby long-drop toilets in the huts settlement have been decommissioned. However, these actions could take some time to make a difference to water quality results.

“The positive news is there has been a real willingness by landowners and local farmers to continue to go beyond their regulatory requirements to address issues in the catchment, so we’re confident change is possible.”

Lake water quality monitoring results

As in the previous year, all of the lakes in Ōtūwharekai remain above their Trophic Level Index (TLI) limit, which means they are not meeting the outcomes for freshwater health expected by the community. The TLI measures overall lake health by assessing nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients) and algal biomass (algae).

The amount of algae in the lakes was generally high for these types of lakes but there were some individual differences from lake-to-lake.

“It was pleasing to see Te-Puna-a-Taka/Lake Clearwater decrease in algae biomass this summer but it’s too early to say if this is pause in decline or reversal of the degrading trend,” said Dr Davie.

“On the other hand, Ōtūroto/Lake Heron, is showing a continued increase in algae, and high numbers of the nuisance algae Ceratium, which is very good at outcompeting other algae for nutrients.”

Stream quality results

Department of Conservation technical advisor – freshwater Dr Tom Drinan said nitrogen concentrations in streams have increased significantly in the Ōtūwharekai catchment in the last ten years.

“Most sample sites have seen a two to three-fold increase in nitrogen concentrations, with current concentrations being very high for these high-country streams,” he said.

“For comparison, nitrogen concentrations at our reference site at Paddle Hill have remained consistently low during the same ten-year period. These worsening nitrogen concentrations continue to pose a risk to the ecological health of these streams and the lakes and rivers they flow into.

“Encouragingly, there has been some reduction in phosphorus concentrations over the same period at these sites.”

A more detailed summary of the key results for each Ōtūwharekai lakes, along with additional science investigations and key activities underway is available on the Ōtūwharekai Ashburton Lakes project page.

About the Ōtūwharekai Working Group

The Ōtūwharekai Working Group was established in 2019 to instigate collaborative and urgent action to halt and reverse the degradation of Ōtūwharekai ecology and values.

The Group is made up of Papatipu Rūnanga with connection to the area – Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri Rūnanga and Te Taumutu Rūnanga – as well as Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Environment Canterbury, farmers in the area, Department of Conservation, Toitū Te Whenua LINZ, Ashburton District Council, Central South Island Fish & Game, the Ministry for the Environment and Ministry for Primary Industries.

To find out more – and to sign up to our newsletter mailing list – visit our Ōtūwharekai/Ashburton Lakes page.