The Western Bay of Plenty boasts some of the most beautiful waterways in New Zealand, but many of these idyllic spots also harbour alarming levels of bacteria - often involving faecal matter. Reporter Juliet Rowan investigates just how safe our favourite swimming holes really are.

It's been raining through the night when we take the road up the Kaimais to McLaren Falls.

It is a grey Tuesday morning, misty cloud hanging in the air, but as we pull into the falls' carpark, the haze evaporates and sunlight floods into the valley. The boulders surrounding the falls glisten and snow-white water cascades into the pools below.

The surrounding mass of trees is a picture of verdant nature, impressing Californian tourist Lucy Wall.

"I love it," the 26-year-old says. "It's very green. We're not used to that in LA."

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It is 9.30am and Lucy has just driven into the carpark with her mum Julie, the pair on the hunt for hiking trails.

The 57-year-old has been awed by the scenery she and her daughter have seen on their five days in the country.

"I want to say clean and green," Julie says. "We've been very impressed."

But the weather during their trip has been patchy and Lucy has noticed the effect on rivers and lakes.

In one place, she saw a layer of scum floating on the water following a downpour.

"You can tell there's a big difference after the rain. Before, it was super clear."

Despite the early hour and it being a week day, Lucy and Julie are not alone at McLaren Falls.

Signs warn of the danger of jumping off the bridge, saying serious injury and death may result due to changing water levels and objects below the surface.

But another potential hazard lurks in the deep green-blue pools - toxic bacteria capable of making people sick.

Under the Bay of Plenty Regional Council's three-tier system for swimming water quality, McLaren Falls is rated amber, which means it is potentially contaminated.

Waka Goldsworthy, a student at Tauranga's Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, is among others at the falls when Bay of Plenty Times Weekend visits.

There are places where you could swim and kayak seven years ago, but now you can't.

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He has just begun a marine studies course, but is unperturbed when told the water at the falls may contain harmful bacteria.

"I moved up here from Nelson," the 18-year-old says, "and this place is far cleaner than any of the rivers in the South Island."

When asked if he worries about swimming in the falls so soon after rain, he says the colour of the water is crystal compared to his home river, the Matai.

"When that rains, it goes brown. It's filthy. If you swim in it [after rain], you get a rotten stomach for two days."

Waka is a keen river swimmer, having visited McLaren Falls seven or eight times in the month he has been in Tauranga, and says he is passionate about the need for the country's rivers and lakes to be cleaned up.

He says in the South Island the consequences of intensive dairy farming have been catastrophic for rivers now contaminated with didymo and other algae and bacteria.

"There are places where you could swim and kayak seven years ago, but now you can't."

Unsafe: Kaiate Falls is subject to a temporary warning against swimming due to unsafe levels of faecal contamination. Photo/John Borren
Unsafe: Kaiate Falls is subject to a temporary warning against swimming due to unsafe levels of faecal contamination. Photo/John Borren

He and his friend Beth Strickland, 17, also from Nelson, have been surprised by the beauty of the Bay and say McLaren Falls is a premium spot for jumping from rocks.

"It's the height and the variation of the jumps," says Waka.

While the idea of needing to check whether a lake or river is free enough of bacteria to swim safely may be anathema to most Bay residents - and indeed most New Zealanders - it is fast becoming a reality.

Waka and Beth may be comfortable braving the potentially contaminated water at McLaren Falls, but monitoring shows it would not be worth taking the risk at several other spots in the Western Bay.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council monitors more than 80 popular coastal, river and lake recreation sites for faecal contamination and toxin-forming algae.

Among those where long-term warnings against swimming are in place are four contaminated sites in the Western Bay: 2 Mile Creek and 3 Mile Creek at Waihi Beach, Lower Waimapu Stream at Greerton, and Courtney Drain at Fraser Cove.

A map the regional council posts on its website grades sites red (highly likely to be contaminated and unsuitable for swimming), amber (potentially contaminated) and green (uncontaminated and safe for swimming).

The scenic Kaiate Falls is among spots subject to a temporary warning to avoid recreational water contact.

The falls has a history of faecal contamination and regularly exceeds a threshold of 540 E.coli per 100ml of water deemed safe for swimming.

However, that may be all about to change.

Summertime is also when most people swim in our rivers. Our rivers need to be clean enough to swim in them. Any standard which ignores that reality is rubbish.

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The issue of water quality in our country's rivers and lakes has been raging in the last week following a Government announcement of proposed new standards to measure "swimability".

National has set a target of getting 90 per cent of rivers and lakes "swimable" by 2040.
The plan is estimated to cost the Government, farmers and councils $2 billion over the next 23 years.

Under the proposal, rivers or lakes that stay below the threshold of 540 E.coli per 100ml of water 80 per cent of the time would be deemed swimable.

Environment Minister Nick Smith says the plan "recognises that New Zealanders expect to be able to take a dip in their local river or lake without getting a nasty bug".

But the Opposition has slammed the policy, saying it is unacceptable that a river can exceed the e.coli level up to 20 per cent of the time and still be graded swimable.

"Twenty per cent is 2.4 months a year," Labour's water spokesman David Parker told Bay of Plenty Times Weekend this week.

Parker said from Christmas until the end of February is less than 20 per cent of the year and river quality generally gets worse in summer because flows are lower and water temperatures are higher.

"Summertime is also when most people swim in our rivers. Our rivers need to be clean enough to swim in them. Any standard which ignores that reality is rubbish."

He said the Government's 90 per cent target of swimable rivers was "unambitious" - a statement that was rubbished by National's Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller.

Lucy Wolf, right, hugs her mum Julie after an adrenaline-filled jump off McLaren Falls. Photo/George Novak
Lucy Wolf, right, hugs her mum Julie after an adrenaline-filled jump off McLaren Falls. Photo/George Novak

Muller told Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the $2 billion needed was a figure that would likely be more expensive than less over time.

"These costs will end up being borne by farmers and urban ratepayers."

Muller agreed 90 per cent swimability should be a long-term goal but said "let's be respectful about the true impacts on our communities to get to this target rather than running the vision down as not pure enough."

Nick Smith says the Government plan is backed up by national regulations requiring stock to be fenced out of waterways and new national policy requirements on regional councils to strengthen their rules on issues such as sewage discharges and planting riparian margins.

A new Freshwater Improvement Fund and maps that identify where improvements are needed are also part of the policy, which is open for consultation until April 28.

Last Saturday, Bay of Plenty Times Weekend used Kaiate Falls as an example of a waterway that would potentially be deemed "swimable" under the new policy.

According to the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa website, it had exceeded the 540 E.coli/100ml water threshold twice out of 16 monitoring tests conducted since November.

But in a statement to Bay of Plenty Times Weekend on Wednesday, Nick Smith said the new national criteria was designed for water bodies larger than the stream which feeds Kaiate Falls. "It covers 54,000km nationwide and is for rivers over 0.4m deep and lakes larger than 1.5km in diameter. For smaller water bodies, people should take advice from their regional council."

He said the 540 E. coli/100ml limit was set in 2003 by the previous Labour government, with the support of the Green Party, and was consistent with the World Health Organisation, European and US standards.

"I swim regularly with my family [in rivers and lakes] and the risk is low enough that I follow the Ministry [of Health] guidelines."

But criticism of the plan appears unlikely to go away, with the Green Party saying National has "shifted the goalposts" for determining whether a river is swimable.

The party says two-thirds of New Zealand's monitored river swimming spots were too polluted for swimming last summer.

Labour's new Bay of Plenty electorate candidate Angela Warren-Clark says the policy focuses on swimability to the exclusion of other considerations.

"We're not even talking about the gathering of kai from those rivers."

She said the effect of polluted river water on resources including puha, eel and whitebait was a concern too.

"There are food sources that are being contaminated from our region as well." She said even the fact we now have to check whether a river is safe to swim in is "horrible" and that rivers needed to be restored to a state that they were swimable and usable all year.

"We're very lucky in this country that we still have flowing and usable water. That doesn't happen in countries all over the world. It's becoming an increasingly important resource for us."

So how, in the face of the change in national water quality standards, can the average person judge whether a river or lake is safe to swim in?

I swim regularly with my family [in rivers and lakes] and the risk is low enough that I follow the Ministry [of Health] guidelines.

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Rob Donald, Bay of Plenty Regional Council's science manager, recommends that people use the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (Lawa) "Can I swim here" pages at www.lawa.org.nz to check for up-to-date health-related swimming safety ratings for popular local swimming spots.

The regional council is responsible for monitoring and supplying data to Lawa from the Bay, and Donald says it uses existing national guidelines for microbiological water quality.
"We also use a broad range of indicators to assess and manage overall water quality across the region," he said in a statement.

"In addition to E.coli and blue-green algae, these include water temperature and nutrient levels (which can affect blue-green algae growth), as well as clarity, macro-invertebrate (aquatic insects, snails, shrimps and worm) sampling and the use of Mataurangi Maori alongside our western science."

Donald said the council remained committed to working with local communities to define and deliver water quality standards that were acceptable to those communities.

Water samples were taken every one to two weeks at summer swimming sites, while other sites were monitored monthly year round.

"The samples are analysed in our laboratory for E.coli which is an indicator of the presence of faecal contamination. Monitoring frequency is increased if high levels of E.coli are detected," Donald said.

American tourists Julie Wolf and her daughter Lucy are surprised to hear the water at McLaren Falls may be less than pure. Photo/George Novak
American tourists Julie Wolf and her daughter Lucy are surprised to hear the water at McLaren Falls may be less than pure. Photo/George Novak

Western Bay of Plenty District Council said it only got involved when directed to put out health warning signs by the Ministry of Health or to investigate if a sewer spill or similar could have contributed to positive results.

Toi Te Ora, the Bay's public health service, said it would look closely at the proposed changes to the monitoring of recreational water and considering the implications of changes in the way the values are calculated and reported, and how ite will work with the councils to keep the public informed.

"In the meantime, we will continue to carefully consider the monitoring information provided by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council under the current guidelines, and issue health warnings for the public should that be appropriate," said medical officer of health Dr Jim Miller.

He said general advice and up-to-date information on specific warnings is updated weekly on Toi Te Ora's website at www.ttophs.govt.nz/health_warnings.

"Swimming in any natural body of water is not without some risk of getting an infection or having a reaction should the water be contaminated in some way," Miller said. "There are however some relatively simple precautions that the public can take to reduce their risk."

He said bacterial contamination of streams, rivers and lakes often increases quite markedly for a couple of days after heavy rain as faecal matter from wild and domestic animals is washed from the land into the waterways.

Therefore, swimming in rivers and lakes should be avoided for 48 hours after heavy rain, while algal blooms in lakes and rivers were often quite obvious, with the water becoming murky and smelling musty.

"If it looks murky or smells, swim somewhere else."

Back at McLaren Falls, Californian visitors Julie and Lucy Wolf have watched rapt as Waka Goldsworthy and his friend Beth Strickland jump from the rocks.

Swimming in any natural body of water is not without some risk of getting an infection or having a reaction should the water be contaminated in some way

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They are surprised to hear from Bay of Plenty Times Weekend that the clear-looking water carries risk of faecal contamination, particularly after the overnight rain, but it is not enough to put them off.

The mother and daughter pair strip down to their bras, and shriek with terror as they leap off the rocks, Julie then Lucy.

Lucy says she almost didn't follow her mum, her heart was pounding so hard, but her yell of elation when she emerges from the water shows she's glad she did.

Julie, screaming with delight, says it was one of the biggest buzzes of her life.

Not for a second were they thinking about muck in the water.

So for now, at least, the clean, green image of the Bay's rivers remains intact in the eyes of our international visitors.