Many NZ rivers unsafe for swimming

07:46, Jul 29 2013

More than 60 per cent of monitored rivers in New Zealand are unsafe for swimming according to Environment Ministry figures, but the Government says the results of its water quality reports are still "encouraging".

The Ministry for the Environment today released indicator reports on river conditions and swimming suitability.

The reports showed 61 per cent of monitored waterways in New Zealand were of "poor" or "very poor" quality, though 90 per cent of sites were either stable or improving. 

Some of the worst included the Manawatu River, the Ruamahanga River in the Wairarapa and parts of the Whakatane River in the Bay of Plenty. 

Of the 612 council and Niwa-monitored sites used for recreation across New Zealand, 205 were rivers or lagoons, 55 were lakes and 352 were coastal. 

A "safe for recreational grade" (SFRG) was established for 425 of these sites. No data was provided for many of the Auckland and Waikato swimming spots. 

Environment Minister Amy Adams said the reports showed that overall concentrations of nutrients and bacteria were either stable or improving at most monitored sites, and that water quality was generally improving.

She said the report took a "precautionary approach" to it's monitoring, so even areas with a very low health risk would be reflected in the grading. 


In many regions, wild weather had been blamed for stirring up nutrients. 

"At some sites, heavy rain and wind can churn up sediment from the bottom of the waterway, releasing pathogens back into the water."

Adams said the results painted an encouraging picture but the Government's freshwater reform programme was critical for any improvement.

"Issues with our waterways have been building over a number of generations, and it is going to take a similarly long time to fully realise solutions for these issues.

The results showed the regions that fared the worst were heavy dairy farming regions. Canterbury had nine waterways graded "very poor", while Manawatu-Whanganui, Southland and Taranaki had seven. Hawkes Bay and Wellington weren't far behind with five each.

Federated Farmers said the results were promising and good environmental farm management was starting to show through in the water quality. 

President Bruce Wills said the figures showed that over a decade, 90 per cent of the sites tested were either stable or improving. 

"In recent years, farmers and communities have really stepped up their efforts but we know we can and must do better. This latest report shows we are heading in the right direction and we need to take this as encouragement to further step up our collective effort."

Federated Farmers were among 17 signatories on the Manawatu River Leader's Accord in 2010 - a commitment to clean up the notoriously filthy river. 

The quality of the Manawatu River in particular, has been a talking point since 2009, when research from the Cawthron Institute showed that - under a system measuring oxygen changes in water - the river topped a list of the 300 worst across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

But the Greens said the results showed water quality was getting worse. 

Water spokesperson Eugenie Sage said New Zealand had a "freshwater crisis" on its hands. 

"The Government implemented a toothless National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management and is planning to use money from the sale of our state-owned energy companies to subsidise large-scale irrigation projects which have further negative impacts on the quality of our rivers.

"Subsidising irrigation will lead to increasing land use intensification - putting more animals and fertiliser on our land - and the science is absolutely clear that this leads to increased water pollution."

Fairfax Media