43% Of NZ Bathing Waters Now Unsafe

Way back in 2008 this blog highlighted the appalling state of some of New Zealand’s most popular bathing waters in “A Third of All Popular Swimming Places Unsafe.”-

“In stark contrast to New Zealand’s ’100% Pure’ image a survey of local authority records by Consumer NZ has revealed that 29% of the most popular beaches and swimming spots are so polluted that the Ministry for the Environment advises people to stay out of the water.

Additionally, a lack of proper information from some councils means that the problem could be even worse than the survey suggests…

In less than two years it seems that the number of unsafe bathing places has increased from 29% to to 43%, if a fresh report in The Herald is anything to go by.

Now that the problem is well and truly recognised, and appears to be getting worse, it gives the regional councils all the clout they need to deal with landowners and industry that are polluting the water. But what of the councils’ own storm and waste water run-offs that discharge directly onto beaches in Auckland and North Shore, what’s to be done about them?

Many popular swimming spots contain high levels of bacteria that cause diarrhoea or infection, a new report shows.

Of 206 rivers, lakes, lagoons and estuaries tested regularly by councils during summer, only 57 per cent were safe for swimming most of the time. The Ministry for the Environment report showed that one in nine freshwater swimming spots, including popular west coast lagoons, often had too much faecal matter in the water to be safe for bathing.

Piha Lagoon, where young children often swim, was Auckland’s worst spot. It was found to have high levels of E.coli, an indicator of faecal or human bacteria, in half of its tests over the 2009/2010 summer period.

Bethells Lagoon was above the safe threshold for bacteria in a quarter of its tests. Lake Wainamu was safe for swimming every time it was tested and Karekare Lagoon was safe most of the time.

Northland region had the most spots – 10 out of 23 – that were consistently too polluted to swim in. The intensification of farming in that area was believed to be responsible for its poor freshwater quality.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said holidaymakers would be surprised by how polluted their favourite swimming holes were.

“These are the spots where New Zealand families have swum, fished and messed about in boats for generations. But these days, you run a pretty good chance of getting sick if you swim at many of our favourite spots.

He said the tests only monitored E.coli levels, and once algal blooms and nitrogen pollution were taken into account, the results gave a bleak picture of our freshwater’s health.

The report showed no improvement in national water quality over the past seven years.

Dr Norman called for urgent national direction on cleaning up rivers. A national inquiry on fresh water two years ago proposed sweeping changes to clean up rivers and streams. A spokesman for Environment Minister Nick Smith said the minister was waiting on input from the Land and Water Forum on a draft policy statement. The forum combined environment, industry, tourism and recreation groups interested in freshwater management.

He said a response from the forum was expected on Dr Smith’s desk next month. If implemented, the national policy statement would give regional councils teeth in dealing with landowners and industry.

Any changes which could affect quality of water would require a specific resource consent. Regions would also be given strict timelines by which they would have to clean up their freshwater.

Recent testing on coastal beaches showed they were not as contaminated as freshwater swimming spots, because faecal matter was dispersed by the currents and large volumes of water at the coast. Last summer, 77 per cent of popular beaches met health guidelines for swimming almost all of the time. The tests showed all Auckland and North Shore beaches were safe for swimming.

No Auckland City beaches appeared in the 2008 Consumer NZ survey we mentioned earlier because at the time the city council “could not provide information” but it should have been published.

Auckland City council was preparing to cut $86 million from stormwater improvements (i.e. separating the sewage from the stormwater because they share common pipes)

Those cuts will mean that sewage overflows at popular Eastern Bays beaches – St Heliers, Kohimarama and Mission Bay will occur for years longer than planned. Which makes the last sentence of the above report seem rather strange and one wonders when, and where,  these tests giving the beaches a ‘clean bill of health’ were carried out.

A quick look at the North Shore City Council’s website SafeSwim FAQs reveals the following problem with storm and waste waters discharges on their beaches:

If water quality is not within national health guidelines temporary warning signs on bright red posts will go up at the main access points of the affected beach or lake site. If you see red, don’t swim! The signs will be removed when water quality is safe.

Check this website or call 0800SAFESWIM to check if your favourite swimming spot is safe.  Warning signs are not put up due to heavy rain so always remember DO NOT swim for 24hrs following heavy rain at North Shore City beaches or Lake Pupuke…

…Pollutants and contaminants can enter our streams, beaches and lake via wastewater overflows or the stormwater system and may contain pathogens (bugs) that can make you sick.

Stormwater is rain runoff from roofs; driveways, roads, car parks and other sealed areas and can contain contaminants such as animal faeces, dirt and heavy metals. Pollutants such as paint, detergents, chemicals and oil may also be present in the stormwater due to them being poured down the stormwater drains. This runoff enters streams and pipes, eventually ending up at a beach or Lake Pupuke.

Wastewater overflows may occur when there has been very heavy rain, causing wastewater to leak into streams and onto beaches. Dry weather overflows can also occur when wastewater pipes are damaged or blocked with fat or tree roots.”

Great, but do the tourists know that, what if they just read newspaper articles that tell them “all Auckland and North Shore beaches were safe for swimming”? and if the water is safe for swimming why does the following also appear in the North Shore City Council’s website? (click to enlarge) and who is going to be looking for them anyway?

Either the water is safe to swim in, or it’s not. Who’d want their kids swimming in water down-current from outlets like these on beaches they believe to be safe.

cartoon that appeared in the NZ Herald

See also:

Project Care on the North Shore City website

The Polluted Waterways section of our “Green Credentials, Or Greenwash?” page

Auckland’s Toxic Beaches – three more sick dogs

Auckland Beaches Poison – another 30 dogs sick, sea slugs poisoned, dog death in Stanmore Bay