'What I learned as a water quality officer'

When second year Canterbury University student Emma Coultas first applied for "every internship Environment Canterbury offered", she was looking for job inspiration.

"I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the end of my degree and I needed to see if this is what I want to do. I was like I don’t really want to sit behind a desk all day and this experience has confirmed that. It's been really good."

Emma, who is studying towards a Bachelor of Science in Geography and Environmental Science found out about Environment Canterbury's internship programme through Canterbury University's geography department.

She applied for every internship on offer and was eventually selected for an internship in water quality monitoring.

Emma visited many locations on her internship, including Gore Bay (pictured).
"I didn’t know anything about water quality monitoring. I was in my first year at university and we haven't specialised yet. We had done water science but it's not like I knew what we were doing." she said.

Along with the other interns, Emma participated in an intensive training programme including first aid, 4WD training, water safety and training specific to the role of water quality monitoring.

Emma's role involved taking water quality samples at rivers, lakes and beaches in the greater Christchurch area, and transporting them to the independent laboratory for testing.

Emma Coultas, right, with fellow water quality intern Ariana Painter delivering water samples to Hill Laboratory.

If a site had high levels of E.coli, then a resample was required as soon as possible. National guidelines require if two consecutive water samples come back with high levels of E.coli, a health warning should be issued by the local district health board.

For the most part, the second sample would show levels had decreased.

The first month on the job was overwhelming Emma admits, particularly with the rain and flooding across Canterbury which meant almost every site needed to be resampled as contaminants flushed through the waterways.

"If we've had rain, you can work out there's probably going to be resamples, and planning the week, you know when you're going to have to do resampling. I don't think I've ever done as much driving as I did then."
Land Air Water Aotearoa (LAWA) is a national website where water quality data is updated for public use.

Science made relatable to public

One of the most exciting things about working in water quality monitoring was that the results were published immediately on the LAWA (Land, Air, Water Aotearoa) website.

"I hadn't really used LAWA before, but there's so much information on there and it's easy. It's such a good website and one of the best things about the programme.

"So much science is done and the public often never sees it, but LAWA is so good because we do all the sampling not just for science, but the public as well," Emma said.

And the message is getting out there.

"Sometimes I'd be out collecting samples and people asked me 'Can I swim here?' and you'd say 'Yea you can' and they'd say 'Just testing you knew what you were talking about'.

"Every time I meet people now, I tell them about LAWA and they already know about it. It's like if you buy a red car, you're more inclined to notice red cars, and when I tell people about LAWA, they'll say 'Oh yea, I heard that on the radio’."

Cyanobacteria, toxic algae, started to become prevalent throughout Canterbury in January.

Cyanobacteria recognition amongst public

Towards the end of 2018, scientists were expecting to have major outbreaks of cyanobacteria in most waterways due to the predicted El Nino weather pattern. Instead, the November floods and rainy December meant any early signs of cyanobacteria were kept at bay. However, in January and February, cyanobacteria triggered five health warnings across Canterbury.

While not ideal, Emma said she was impressed with the awareness people had about it and knowledge of how to recognise it.

"I didn’t know what cyano was before I started working here and there are so many people who see the signs and ask about it or there are a lot of people who already know about it. They know it's black algae and they shouldn’t touch it.

"I was at the Selwyn River doing some testing there and these kids came up to me- they would've been about 6 years-old- and asked 'Why are you allowed to touch that? We're not allowed to touch the black algae'. I had to tell them I wasn't touching it, but the fact they knew they weren't allowed to touch it was quite surprising and really good they knew about it," Emma said.

Emma during her time assisting Environment Canterbury staff with their bignose galaxiid project in Tekapo.

In search of the bignose

While water quality sampling was great, the highlight for Emma was joining Environment Canterbury staff in Tekapo collecting information about the bignose galaxiid.

They spent three days at a high-country station doing a habitat assessment at 11 sites in a stream, looking specifically at macrophyte cover, sedimentation at certain transects across the stream, and they'd put in nets overnight and come back to count how many bignose and other species were caught.

"The purpose of it was to see whether fencing off the stream would change the bignose habitat- if there's no stock going through the streams, then there's no macrophyte cover, so we were seeing whether that would affect their protection.," Emma said.

Now heading into her second year of her degree, Emma has a renewed passion and sense of what she could do in the future.

"I like Environment Canterbury. It's helped me to realise I'd quite like to work here in the future," she said.

Emma intends to apply for another Environment Canterbury internship next year.

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