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ESR groundwater scientists win big at Primary Industry Awards

Groundwater Primary Industries Awards 2024
Groundwater Primary Industries Awards 2024

ESR and DairyNZ experts have been honoured at the 2024 Primary Industry New Zealand Summit & Awards for their cutting-edge research into how woodchips could help remove nitrates from groundwater, jointly receiving this year’s Science & Research Award.

The win is the culmination of several years of research led by ESR’s Christchurch-based Groundwater Team, which saw the installation of a series of prototype denitrification bioreactors that include the denitrifying wall at Silvestream Reserve near Christchurch, and the denitrification bioreactor installed at a dairy farm drain discharging at Barkers Creek, near Geraldine. The wall is a trench filled with gravel and woodchips set below the water table, through which groundwater flows. In both reactors the carbon leaching from the woodchips stimulates microbial processes that convert nitrate to nitrogen gas that escapes to the atmosphere. Unlike filtering, the nutrients do not accumulate and the woodchip media do not need replacing and replenishing for possibly decades, creating a practical and low maintenance science solution to the water quality problem which New Zealand is striving to address.

This research has practical benefits for farmers, including enhancing farm environment plans while normalising sustainable farming. The ESR team says there is scope to apply the technique to pollutants beyond nitrates, and to greatly upscale the ‘wall’ systems in catchment and regional scales as well as on farms. 

"This project is an example of what can be achieved with mission-led research. Environmental concerns related to the primary industries are real but they shouldn’t inhibit Aotearoa's growth and prosperity. Our project has achieved exactly that. 

“We have shown that food production does not need to compete with the environment and with investment in science, and we can improve both environmental outcomes and the primary sectors' productivity," says Dr Theo Sarris, who co-leads the project with Dr Andy Pearson. 
Receiving this award is important recognition of the value ESR brings not only in terms of environmental stewardship, but also financially to Kiwi industries. To win speaks to how highly the judges view the potential of this research to make a positive impact, the result of dedicated collaboration and effort between ESR and DairyNZ. A massive thanks to our funders (ESR, Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, and DairyNZ) and everyone involved (Theo Sarris, Andy Pearson, Phil Abraham, Richard Sutton, Murray Close, Erin McGill, Allanah Kenny, Sarah Coxon, Liping Pang, Sujani Ariyadasa, Louise Weaver, Laura Banasiak, Judith Webber, Panan Sitthirit, Sophie van Hamelsveld from ESR, the Southern Geophysical team, our collaborators Andrew Binley from Lancaster University, Giorgio Cassiani from Padova University, Environment Canterbury, Waimakariri District Council, and Katrina Macintosh from DairyNZ).

Most importantly a massive ‘thank you’ to farmers  John & Tim Saywell who have allowed the team to do research on their family farm. And of course special recognition goes to Lee Burbery of DairyNZ (formerly ESR), who has been vital to the project's success since the project idea was formed almost 10 years ago.

The awards ceremony was held in Wellington on Tuesday, 2 July. Click here to find out more.