About recreational water quality and health

This section provides information about recreational water quality, and how it affects our health.

Recreational water refers to rivers, lakes and coastal waters.  People use recreational water for activities like swimming, surfing, water skiing, white water sports, underwater diving, sailing, boating and shellfish gathering. 

Māori consider water a taonga (treasure). 

On this page

Recreational water quality is important for health
Water-related gastrointestinal illnesses
Human sewage and animal manure are the main sources of faecal contamination
Point and diffuse sources of water contamination
Livestock faecal matter can affect water quality
Why rivers and lakes are more vulnerable than coastal waters
‘Suitability for recreation grade’ of freshwater and coastal beaches

Recreational water quality is important for health

Many New Zealanders enjoy swimming at coastal beaches and in rivers and lakes.

Recreational water can become contaminated with faecal pathogens (such as bacteria and viruses) from human sewage and animal manure. Contaminated recreational water can cause [1-5]:

  • gastrointestinal illnesses (causing diarrhoea and vomiting)
  • respiratory diseases
  • eye, ear, nose and throat symptoms.

Anyone can be affected, but young children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable.  

More harmful diseases like Hepatitis A can also be contracted from contaminants in the water.

Algal blooms from excess nutrients may also cause health effects, through contaminated shellfish or toxins produced by cyanobacteria.   

Water-related gastrointestinal illnesses

Water-related gastrointestinal illnesses include campylobacteriosis, cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis. 

  • Campylobacteriosis is caused by a bacterium, usually Campylobacter jejuni or C. coli [6]. Symptoms include abdominal pain, fever and diarrhoea, often with bloody stools. 
  • Cryptosporidiosis is caused by the intestinal parasite cryptosporidium [7].  Cryptosporidiosis is an acute illness with diarrhoea and abdominal pain. 
  • Giardiasis is caused by the protozoan parasite Giardia intestinalis. The main symptoms are diarrhoea and cramps. 

These gastrointestinal illnesses can be contracted in a variety of ways, including contact with: contaminated water, farm animals, sick animals, faecal matter, other symptomatic people; and eating contaminated food [8]. 

Human sewage and animal manure are the main sources of faecal contamination

The two major sources of faecal pathogens in New Zealand recreational waters are:

  • human sewage
  • animal manure. 

Most human sewage in New Zealand is treated in sewage treatment systems, then discharged into water [9]. Not all sewage treatment systems carry out tertiary treatment to disinfect the wastewater and kill pathogens. Untreated sewage may also get into waterways through broken sewer pipes, storm overflows and poorly maintained septic tanks. 

Animal manure includes faecal matter (or effluent) from livestock, such as dairy cattle, beef cattle, deer and sheep. Rainfall can wash livestock faecal matter from farmland into waterways. Contamination can also occur if livestock are allowed to defecate directly into streams. Animals like waterfowl, ducks and dogs may also contaminate water in some localised areas. 

Point and diffuse sources of water contamination

In general, contamination of rivers and lakes can occur through:

  • point source discharges (eg discharges of treated wastewater)
  • diffuse source pollution (eg run-off from agricultural land).

Point source discharges come from a single point, such as a pipe. Large efforts have been made over the past 40 years to control point source discharges in New Zealand [10]. For example, many sewage treatment plants have been upgraded.

Diffuse (or non-point) source discharges are now thought to be the main source of water pollution in New Zealand [10,11]. These diffuse sources are mainly associated with intensive land use, particularly agricultural land use [11].  

Livestock faecal matter can affect water quality 

Livestock faecal matter (eg from dairy cattle, beef cattle, deer and sheep) is one of the major sources of pathogen contamination in our waterways. 

Faecal matter from livestock can get into waterways through a number of ways, such as:

  • rainfall washing livestock effluent from the land into waterways
  • livestock defecating directly into waterways (if they have access)
  • leaching into groundwater
  • illegal discharges of effluent from milking sheds or piggeries directly into waterways.

Effluent from dairy cow milking sheds is often irrigated back onto the farm land. In some cases, this effluent may still enter waterways, for example if:

  • rainfall washes away dairy effluent that was deposited onto pasture  
  • the ground is too wet for the irrigated effluent to soak in
  • effluent storage ponds overflow.

Bacteria levels in waterways are often highest after rainfall, when faecal matter is carried from land into the waterways.

Read more on the livestock webpage.

Why rivers and lakes are more vulnerable than coastal waters

Freshwater sites, like rivers and lakes, are more vulnerable to water contamination than coastal beaches.

This is because, at coastal beaches, contaminants are more rapidly diluted and dispersed by currents and large volumes of water [12]. 

Freshwater sites are generally more likely than coastal sites to have:

  • higher background levels of bacteria
  • longer-lasting contamination events.

‘Suitability for recreation grade’ of freshwater and coastal beaches 

The ‘Suitability for Recreation Grade’ (SFRG) is used to report water quality at freshwater and coastal beaches in New Zealand [13]. The grade gives the overall health risk from microbiological contamination, for recreational activities like swimming and surfing. This grading system has been used by the Ministry for the Environment since 2011.  

Water quality is monitored at selected recreational coastal and freshwater beaches by regional, district and city councils [12]. Monitoring occurs during the swimming season (between November and March) and usually on a weekly basis. Councils select sites for monitoring based on public use and known health risk.

Water samples are tested to ensure they comply with the guidelines in the Microbiological Water Quality Guidelines for Marine and Freshwater Recreational Areas [1].

E. coli and Enterococci are indicator bacteria that show the presence of faeces, and an increased likelihood of water-borne pathogens. If levels of E. coli or Enterococci breach the guideline levels, councils will restrict access to the water sources. The maximum guideline levels are:

  • at freshwater beaches: 550 E. coli per 100 millilitres
  • at coastal beaches: 280 Enterococci per 100 millilitres

View the indicator on the suitability for swimming webpage

References

1. Ministry for the Environment. 2003. Microbiological Water Quality Guidelines for Marine and Freshwater Recreational Areas. Wellington: Ministry for the Environment.

2. Corbett SJ, Rubin GL, Curry GK, Kleinbaum DG. 1993. The health effects of swimming at Sydney beaches. The Sydney Beach Users Study Advisory Group. American Journal of Public Health 83(12): 1701-1706. 

3. Harrington J, Wilcox D, Giles P, Ashbolt N, Evans J, Kirton H. 1993. The health of Sydney surfers: an epidemiological study. Water Science & Technology 27(3-4): 175-181. 

4. McBride G, Salmond C, Bandaranayake D, Turner S, Lewis G, Till D. 1998. Health effects of marine bathing in New Zealand. International Journal of Environmental Health Research 8(3): 173-189. 

5. World Health Organization. 2003. Guidelines for safe recreational water environments: Coastal and fresh waters (Vol. 1). World Health Organization.

6. World Health Organization. 2014. Water-related diseases: campylobacteriosis.   Retrieved 21/09/2016, from http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/campylobacteriosis/en/

7. World Health Organization. 2013. Preventing cryptosporidiosis: the need for safe drinking water.   Retrieved 06/05/2014, from http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/91/4/13-119990/en/

8. ESR. 2014. Notifiable and Other Diseases in New Zealand: Annual Report 2013. Porirua, New Zealand. Available online: https://surv.esr.cri.nz/surveillance/annual_surveillance.php

9. PCE. 2012. Water Quality in New Zealand: Understanding the science. Wellington: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

10. Howard-Williams C, Davies-Colley R, Rutherford K, Wilcock R. 2010. Diffuse pollution and freshwater degradation: New Zealand perspectives. Paper presented at the 14th International Conference of the IWA Diffuse Pollution Specialist Group, DIPCON 2010, Québec City. 

11. Proffitt F. 2010. How clean are our rivers?   Retrieved 1 August 2014, from http://www.niwa.co.nz/publications/wa/water-atmosphere-1-july-2010/how-clean-are-our-rivers

12. Ministry for the Environment. 2007. Environment New Zealand 2007. Wellington: Ministry for the Environment.

13. Ministry for the Environment. 2013. Suitability for swimming. Available online: http://www.mfe.govt.nz/environmental-reporting/fresh-water/suitability-for-swimming-indicator/suitability-swimming-indicator.html