Cows spotted cooling off yesterday in a river which supplies drinking water to the Horowhenua region have sparked intense debate on social media.

The cows had free access to the river area about 200 metres upstream of the Gladstone Reserve on the Ohau River, a favourite local swimming spot, and part of Levin's drinking water supply.

It was recently one of two sites which tested higher than acceptable for E.coli bacteria levels by Horizons Regional Council.

The council said "a number of sites" throughout the region "show signs of pressure" and reducing run-off through stock exclusion was one way it was endeavouring to improve water quality in the district.

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Animal waste contamination is one of the causes of elevated E.coli levels in rivers.

The pictures, posted on the Horowhenua Chronicle's Facebook page provoked varying reactions.

Some commenters had no problem with cows in the river, while many others expressed concern at the rules and practices governing the supply of drinking water.

A herd of cows take a cooling dip in the Ohau River near Levin. PHOTO / ASHLEIGH COLLIS
A herd of cows take a cooling dip in the Ohau River near Levin. PHOTO / ASHLEIGH COLLIS

The cattle shown in the river were not dairy cows, said DairyNZ Regional Leader for the Lower North Island, James Muwunganirwa.



Dairy farmers were committed to keeping dairy animals out of waterways on their farms, he said.



"Some 98 per cent of dairy farmers around the country have fenced off waterways on their farms, and bridged all stock crossings. The target by May of this year is for 100 per cent stock exclusion.



"This means that right now very few dairy cattle have any access to waterways, and in just two months' time no dairy cattle - that's zero dairy cattle - should have access to waterways on our farms."



Mr Muwunganirwa added that, to date, dairy farmers around the country had installed 27,109km of fencing.

The direct impact of compromised water quality has been felt keenly in Levin recently.

The town was issued with two "boil water" notices last month when heavy rainfall muddied the same river, meaning the town's treatment plant may have been compromised.

The Government has set a target of making 90 per cent of New Zealand's rivers and streams safe for swimming by 2040.

Under the target, all waterways would have to meet the safe standard for E.coli contamination 80 per cent of the time.

However, the plan has been criticised as merely moving the goalposts for water quality standards rather than doing much to improve it, with E.coli levels allowed to be double what they were before for water to rank as "swimmable."

Previously water quality could be rated "excellent" if it had up to 260 parts of E.coli per 100ml.

The standard was now 540 parts per 100ml.

A herd of cows take a cooling dip in the Ohau River near Levin. PHOTO / ASHLEIGH COLLIS
A herd of cows take a cooling dip in the Ohau River near Levin. PHOTO / ASHLEIGH COLLIS

The Government has announced the new target would be backed by national rules requiring stock to be kept out of waterways and would make regional councils tighten their rules on sewage discharges.

Horizons Regional COuncil and Horowhenua District Council have been approached for comment about the cows.