In the middle of the afternoon on New Year's Day, lifeguards at Takapuna beach called all swimmers out of the water believing sewage was flowing from a stormwater pipe after a downpour that day. When I read that I couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe lifeguards would do something so drastic.

Takapuna is a long beach, the suspected effluent was entering the water between the flags. So move the flags well away, then call the council's emergency line and get the muck checked before closing such a popular beach on the first day of the year. What on earth has happened to common sense?

I don't really blame the lifeguards. I watched one of them talk about it on TV. The young guy felt responsibility for all the people there and he did what possibly he wouldn't do if he was making a decision for himself. If he had only himself to worry about, he would move well down the beach and go back in the water.

Could be wrong. People are different. If he and several mates were going for a swim and saw something murky entering the surf with them, I'm guessing they'd wander down the beach to where the water looked clear. But even there, maybe one or two wouldn't go in.

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I'm not blaming them, I'm blaming the culture of excessive caution that has captured the public mind when something like this occurs. Whatever happened to "she'll be right"?

Takapuna's discharge turned out not to be sewage, just filthy road water after the rain. But before that became known on Tuesday, when the don't swim signs were still on the beach, some people were reported to be in the water regardless. I salute them, I cheer them. I rejoice that we still have individuals who can take today's risk-averse public advice with a healthy grain of salt.

We are probably going to need bags of the stuff over the next few years. We are still enjoying good times economically and long may they last, but human society has to have something to worry about, or at least talk about, and in good times these days we fret about the environment. We had an election last year in which we were urged to worry that it was no longer safe to swim in rivers.

Be honest, do you want to swim in a river? "Swimmable" was just a water quality measure of course, probably an excessive one for rivers such as the Waikato from a practical point of view but politically it worked. Dairy farming is in retreat and ecology lecturer Mike Joy received an inaugural "Critic and Conscience of Society Award" from Universities NZ for sounding the alarm over its damage to waterways.

Why have we let joyless puritans dominate public thinking on so many subjects these days. It's good that we keep rivers reasonably clean, which means not to a degree that precludes cows grazing in pasture year round. And it is good that Auckland should fix its faulty drains but there is no need to scare us off most of the beaches every time it rains.

The incident on New Year's Day was a blessing for Mayor Phil Goff's perfectly sensible but inevitably contentious proposal that Aucklanders pay a dedicated extra rate for a seven-year project to stop surface water overloading the city's sewers. Normally reports of contamination of swimming spots around the harbour come into the news well after the swimming season.

The Takapuna false alarm also drew attention to a new website called "Safeswim" set up jointly by the Auckland Council, Watercare, Surf Lifesaving Northern Region and the Auckland Regional Public Health Service. It features a map of the region with all its beaches flagged for risks to swimmers' health.

In Tuesday's sunshine, when the news from Takapuna was in the paper, just about all the beaches were red-flagged. On Wednesday just about all of them had a nice green tick. On Thursday after overnight rain, nearly all the East Coast Bays, Takapuna, Mission Bay, Kohimarama, St Heliers, Bucklands Beach, Maraetai and Waiheke all had red flags. Really?

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I bet nobody had inspected the beaches that day. The public bodies are just obeying an insidious thing called the precautionary principle. When it rains sewage might get into stormwater, sound the alarms.

In nearly 50 summers of wallowing in Auckland's warm sea I have encountered something foul only once, and it was such a lonely little thing, bobbing there in clear water so far from the city that it must have come from a boat. The only times I ever think twice about jumping into the Hauraki Gulf is from a boat first thing on a sunny morning when other boats have been anchored in the bay overnight.

I think twice and dive in.