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  • Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato and Waikato Regional Council
    Published 17 March 2020 Referencing Hub media

    The habitat conditions at a monitoring site can influence stream life. A visual habitat assessment involves close observation of some of these conditions.

    The SOSMART visual health check uses the following observations:

    Smells – smell the water, note what you smell.

    Obstructions – is there anything restricting water flow?

    Stream bed – is there anything covering or smothering the stream?

    Margin or bank – what do you see?

    Appearance of the water – note what it looks like.

    Rate of flow – note if it is fast or slow.

    Top surface of the water – note your observations.

    The visual habitat assessment also includes an observational drawing of the stream. Protocols recommend a habitat assessment length of about 50 m if the stream width is greater than 3 m or 20 m if the stream width is 1 m. This depends on access, safety and time.

    The observational drawing identifies the photopoint, various sampling points, water flow riffles and runs, stream bed composition and direction of water flow.

    In addition to observational drawings, take photos of the area so changes can be viewed over time.

    These Rivers and Us resources are in a downloadable PDF format. Use them as a guide to the scientific methodology for habitat assessment. They also contain discussion and reflection questions.



    The visual habitat assessment is one of the most important tools for monitoring stream health. It:

    • provides data on possible impacts,
    • identifies habitat features that could be affecting stream health, and it provides a visual health check that can be used to provide data for comparison over time.


    What we’re doing is having a look at this space here as a habitat. So we’re going to have a look at the ecosystem here in the stream and see whether it’s a really healthy place for things to live. So other life – insects, animals, birds, fish – that sort of thing.


    Start by recording what the weather is like at the time of your assessment and also the rainfall for the previous 48 hours.

    Observe closely and record the aspects that make up the SOSMART visual health check for your stream. Smells – what does the water smell like?

    Obstructions – is there anything restricting water flow?

    Stream bed – is there anything covering or smothering the stream?

    Margin or bank – what do you see?

    Take note of the vegetation along the stream banks. Vegetation is very important to stream health. It provides shade, reducing the water temperature. It filters nutrients and catches sediment in run-off. Vegetation also stabilises the streambanks.

    Appearance of the water – what does it look like?

    Rate of flow – is it fast or slow?


    The next one we would look at is the flowing water. We’re going to look at riffles, pools and bends. So do you guys know what I mean when I say riffles? It’s when the water is really moving up and down, and what do you think it’s good for? It’s when the water is really moving up and down, so it’s putting – it’s aerating the water. It’s getting lots of oxygen in, and the animals that live in the stream need that oxygen to survive. So we want a bit of variety with bends, pools and riffles.


    Top surface of the water – what do you observe?

    Finally, make an observational drawing that identifies the key features of your stream.

    If you have done riparian planting, note the size of the plants. That way, you can see their progress over time.

    And add in the places you carried out the monitoring. This is an essential piece of your monitoring data that will enable you to monitor at the same place next time.


    Alex Daniel
    Waikato Regional Council
    The Fairfield Project
    Hannah, Jess and Sam, Waikato Diocesan School for Girls
    Footage of algae mats in river, Cawthron Institute
    Footage of stream riffles with leaf litter, NIWA


    This video has been developed in partnership with the Waikato Regional Council as part of the Rivers and Us resource.

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