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Northland: Annual Testing of Popular Swim Spots Begins

02 December, 2010

Summer water quality tests to indicate how safe Northland’s most popular beaches, rivers and lakes are for swimming are under way again.

The Northland Regional Council has been monitoring bacterial levels at popular swimming spots over summer for more than a decade.

Rochelle Carter, the Council’s Environmental Monitoring Officer – State of the Environment, says this year’s programme began on Monday (subs: Mon Nov 29) and will run until the end of March next year.

“The programme monitors bacteria levels in the water at beaches, lakes and rivers that are most frequently used for swimming, water sports and other forms of recreation where people are coming into contact with the water.”

She says hundreds of samples will be taken from 61 coastal and 24 freshwater sites across the region this year. To allow people to make informed decisions about where it’s best to swim, results will be posted every Friday on the Council’s website at: www.nrc.govt.nz/swimming

As usual, samples will be given one of three grades depending on the number of bacteria they contain: ‘Green’ (safe to swim), ‘Amber’ (elevated levels of bacteria) or ‘Red’ (unsafe for swimming).

As well as being posted on the Regional Council’s website, results will also be forwarded weekly to District Councils and the Northland District Health Board and other interested parties.

Ms Carter says the District Health Board (DHB) and District Councils are also informed of any results showing elevated bacterial levels within 24 hours.

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“It then becomes the responsibility of the DHB and the region’s three District Councils to take action. This can include further site investigations to establish the source of contamination, public warnings not to swim or gather shellfish or erection of permanent warning signs at the worst sites.”
Ms Carter says the majority of the popular spots the Regional Council monitors are safe for swimming most of the time.

However, she says the current dry conditions and associated low river levels can adversely impact on water quality because there is effectively less water to dilute any bacteria which finds its way into river and streams. There is also a potential risk that stock and other wildlife could foul water while trying to find some respite from the heat.

Ironically, Ms Carter says Northland usually has the opposite problem, with its normally high rainfall and hilly geography making it more likely sites could become contaminated by run-off from the land for several days after heavy rainfall.

Meanwhile, she says there are a few sites in Northland which are consistently unsafe for swimming irrespective of the weather due to consistently high levels of bacterial contamination.

“Most already have permanent signs warning people against swimming or gathering shellfish and these sites are typically affected by more persistent sources of pollution, such as leaking septic tanks or faeces from wild animals and stock. “

Ms Carter says the Regional Council has a strategy to investigate the source of contamination at problem sites so that, whenever possible, work can be done to improve water quality.

People wanting to check water quality at their favourite spot can visit the Council’s website www.nrc.govt.nz/swimming or freephone 0800 002 004 for more information.

However, she says there are four simple points people can use as a good rule of thumb if they’re unsure about the water quality in their favourite area:

• DON”T swim if there are warning signs indicating water is unsafe
• 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.

Ms Carter says people wanting to report concerns about water quality can contact the Regional Council’s freephone 24/7 Environmental Hotline on 0800 504 639.


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