What is the Recreational Swimming Water Quality Programme (RSWQP)?
We collect weekly water samples from the region’s most popular swimming sites over summer to check for bacteria. Sites are graded based on how many bacteria we find: green (considered suitable for swimming), orange (considered potentially unsuitable for swimming), red (considered unsuitable for swimming). Results are posted weekly at www.nrc.govt.nz/swimming. Warning signs are erected at sites graded 'unsuitable for swimming'. The programme is a joint project managed by the Northland Regional Council (NRC), in partnership with the Northland District Health Board (DHB) and the region’s three District Councils.
Why do we need this programme?
So people can make an informed decision about where to swim.
Why are some places unsuitable for swimming?
Water quality is affected by a number of different factors, including surrounding land-use, discharges, water level, flow and temperature. We check for E. coli bacteria in freshwater and Enterococci bacteria and faecal coliforms in estuaries and saltwater. Bacterial contamination can come from a number of sources including waste from wild mammals (such as possums and pigs) and domestic mammals (such as cattle, sheep and dogs); and in waste from humans and birds like seagulls and ducks. Bacteria occur naturally in water as a result of decomposition of dead plant material. However, it’s the level and source of contamination that is of concern. Northland’s normally high rainfall and hilly geography make it more likely sites can be contaminated by run-off from the land for several days after heavy rain. Coastal sites tend to record lower levels of bacteria than freshwater sites as they are flushed regularly by the tide, have larger volumes of water to dilute contamination and lower water temperature. In contrast, freshwater sites, particularly small streams, are flushed less often, have smaller quantities of water to dilute contaminants and tend to have a higher water temperature during the summer months.
What are the health risks from swimming in contaminated water?
Skin, eye and ear infections; stomach and respiratory illnesses. Bacteria can be swallowed with contaminated water or inhaled and can also enter the body through open wounds like cuts and scrapes. The amount of bacteria a person needs to ingest or inhale before becoming sick varies. For freshwater recreation in New Zealand, the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Health have set the maximum acceptable risk at eight in every 1000 users falling ill as a result of contact with contaminated water. For marine waters, the maximum acceptable risk is 19 in every 1000 users.
Who do I contact if I become ill after swimming at a site in Northland?
See a doctor if the symptoms are severe or if you are worried. You should contact the oncall health protection officer at the Northland District Health Board on 09 430 4100 if you think your illness was caused by swimming.
What about shellfish gathering at unsuitable sites?
Shellfish like mussels, tuatua, toheroa, oysters, cockles, pipi and scallops filter their food from seawater and can also take in bacteria, viruses, contaminants and pollution at the same time. These nasties can remain in their gut tissue for several months which is why eating shellfish from unsuitable sites is not recommended. Discarding the gut (hua) from shellfish before eating them reduces the risk of becoming sick. Eating ‘grazing’ shellfish, such as paua, kina and pupu (catseyes), also poses a lower risk.
Who do I contact if I become ill after eating shellfish from a site in Northland?
It is always a good idea to see a doctor if you think you have an illness caused by contaminated shellfish. You should also contact the oncall health protection officer at the Northland District Health Board on 09 430 4100.
What’s the Regional Council’s role in the Recreational Swimming Water Quality Programme?
We collect and analyse samples and publish results weekly on our website. We also forward all results to the District Health Board and District Councils daily so they can take action at unsuitable sites. We also publish a report detailing and discussing the season’s results at the end of summer (This also goes on our website.)
NRC also investigates problem sites with consistently high bacteria levels to try determine a cause(s) so those levels can be cut wherever possible.
What role does a District Council have?
They must ‘action’ any 'unsuitable for swimming' results in their District. We send them all 'unsuitable' results within 24 hours. It’s their responsibility to either collect further samples to confirm the 'unsuitable' result or erect signs warning people the area is unsuitable for swimming or shellfish gathering. They must ensure warning signs are visible, not defaced or vandalised and have the date of the 'unsuitable' result written clearly on them. They must remove signs once bacteria levels are within the 'suitable for swimming' limits again. All enquiries about signage should be referred to the relevant District Council.
What’s the District Health Board’s role?
It issues public advisory notices on 'unsuitable' results. The DHB also helps choose sites for monitoring, provides information on the health risks associated with swimming or gathering shellfish in contaminated water and helps design warning signs.
If a warning sign is up, when is a site suitable for swimming?
Contact your local District Council. Generally, a site is unsuitable for swimming or shellfish gathering while a temporary sign is in place. (The date on this sign should be no more than seven days old.) However, if a site has had several 'unsuitable' results, or if there is a known water quality problem, a permanent warning sign may be erected. This sign will stay until five consecutive ‘suitable' results have been collected.
Where can I get information on water quality?
We are monitoring 47 popular coastal and 12 freshwater sites across Northland this summer. You can view results (including from previous years) online at www.nrc.govt.nz/swimming or collect a hard copy from our Whangarei office. For information about sites we are not monitoring this summer call us on 0800 002 004 and ask to speak to the State of the Environment (SOE) Monitoring Officer.
Who decides which sites are monitored each year?
Sites are prioritised by programme participants before summer each year according to their popularity and risk. While we don’t have the resources to sample every swimming site in Northland, other sites may also be included if there appears to be an issue that may affect human health, or if a member of the public has requested they be tested.
How can I tell if my swimming spot is suitable for swimming?
The best way is to check our website www.nrc.govt.nz/swimming however,
there are four simple points you can use as a good rule of thumb:
- DON'T swim if there are warning signs indicating water is unsuitable for swimming
- AVOID swimming for two to three days after heavy rain
- DON'T swim if water looks dirty/murky, smells or it has scum on the surface
- BE AWARE of potential sources of contamination nearby or upstream.
What’s being done to improve Northland’s water quality?
In 2009 we launched a strategy to investigate the source(s) of faecal contamination at sites identified through the RSWQP as having consistently poor water quality.
Over the previous summers, NRC investigated 22 sites with consistently poor water quality to try and identify the source(s) of contamination. This summer, investigations will continue at nine sites.
Investigation work includes sampling to identify which animal waste was coming from and surveying septic tank and wastewater systems. We also sample to identify where levels of bacteria are at their highest and map what land in the area is used for to identify potential sources of contamination.
Once the results are in we can work with key stakeholders, landowners and the general public to try to improve water quality there. Options include better land management practices (such as fencing livestock out of water bodies) or through rectifying faulty wastewater treatment systems.
However, in some instances (for example where contamination is caused by birds) it may not be possible to reduce the amount of bacteria in the water. In these cases, improved signage at these sites will allow the public to make an informed decision about whether or not to swim.
Water quality in Northland is managed through rules in the Regional Water and Soil Plan (RWSP). These rules control discharges to water and activities that may affect water quality. For more information on these rules, please go to www.nrc.govt.nz
How can I help?
Report suspected incidents of water pollution to our 24/7 Environmental Hotline 0800 504 639. If you have concerns about swimming water quality you can also contact the NRC State of the Environment team on 0800 002 004.
If you have an issue with warning signs, contact your local District Council:
Far North 0800 920 029
Whāngārei 0800 932 463
Kaipara 0800 100 388
If you have a health concern relating to contact with contaminated water, contact the oncall health protection officer of the District Health Board on 09 430 4100.