This indicator update gives a summary of the suitability of the freshwater and coastal beaches we choose for recreation. It uses data published by regional and district councils to report on recreational water quality at a national scale. This is the first time we have used ‘beach grades’ – this new method provides information about typical conditions. It focuses on the suitability for swimming at popular swimming spots, and does not give a comprehensive picture of the overall state of New Zealand’s waterways. Our new methodology means we cannot assess trends this year but it will allow us to better measure future change.
This indicator update cannot tell you whether it is safe to swim today at a particular spot and does not replace the site-specific information available on regional and district council websites which can help people understand the likely health risk when deciding whether to go swimming.
A total of 210 freshwater beaches and 248 coastal beaches used for recreation have been assigned a beach grade based on monitoring data acquired over five consecutive summers (including the 2011–12 summer). The results presented here are based on these sites.
Other recreational beaches are being monitored but do not have sufficient data to be assigned a beach grade. Almost all regions undertake their own seasonal recreational water quality monitoring. Contact regional and district councils for more information about current conditions and specific monitoring sites.
Note: see the ‘What are beach grades?’ box below for a description of the beach grades. Data is collected by regional and district councils and collated by the Ministry for the Environment.
The bar graph shows the proportion of monitored freshwater and coastal beaches used for recreation and graded in 2012 that fall into each beach grade: for freshwater recreational sites, 21 per cent have been graded as ‘very poor’; 24 per cent have been graded as ‘poor’; 24 per cent have been graded as ‘fair’; 15 per cent have been graded as ‘good’; and 17 per cent have been graded as ‘very good’. For coastal recreational sites, 3 per cent have been graded as ‘very poor’; 13 per cent have been graded as ‘poor’; 25 per cent have been graded as ‘fair’; 42 per cent have been graded as ‘good’; and 18 per cent have been graded as ‘very good’.
Beach grades describe the likely condition of a beach that may be used for recreation during summer. They are based on an assessment of potential sources of faecal contamination. There are five different grades that can be assigned to a coastal or freshwater beach:
Of the 458 monitored beaches that were graded in 2012:
This year’s results cannot be compared with last year’s because we have changed our reporting method to one which is clearer and gives a better indication of health risk. The categories that were used to grade freshwater and coastal beaches are not comparable with those that we have used in previous years. However, this new way of reporting will allow us to monitor change more effectively from this year on.
Note: the white dots show the sites that have been monitored but have not been assigned a beach grade as they do not have sufficient data. The coloured dots show the sites that have been graded in 2012. See the Recreational Water Quality 2012 data (XLS, 31 KB) or (PDF, 208 KB) used in this indicator update. Data is collected by regional and district councils and collated by the Ministry for the Environment.
This figure is a map of New Zealand showing the location and 2012 beach grades for freshwater and coastal beaches used for recreation.
The guidelines for contact recreation published by the Ministry for the Environment recommend that beaches used for recreation are identified and prioritised for monitoring the presence of risk factors in the catchment based on potential sources of faecal contamination. This enables regional and district councils to cost-effectively identify and manage public health risk, but means that recreational monitoring results are not representative of overall water quality in New Zealand. In addition, regional results are not directly comparable due to variations in the way beach grades are determined. The Ministry for the Environment is working with regional and district councils to ensure a standardised methodology is used across regions.
There are two components to calculating a beach grade:
While beach grades provide information about the typical state of a beach, regional and district councils also use weekly monitoring to inform the public of more immediate health risks when measured bacteria concentration exceed ‘action thresholds’. These action thresholds are based on levels of risk drawn from international guidelines confirmed by New Zealand studies.
There are other reasons why beaches may be unsuitable for recreation, such as algal blooms or poor water clarity. These are not covered by this indicator update, but many regional and district councils monitor and report on other risks to the public.
Water contaminated by faecal micro-organisms poses a health hazard, particularly if swallowed. In most cases the health effects are minor and short-lived, such as gastric-intestinal illnesses with symptoms like diarrhoea or vomiting, and infections of the eye, ear, nose and throat. However, there are other potentially more harmful diseases such as giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, campylobacteriosis and salmonellosis. Hepatitis A can also be contracted from contaminants in the water and can lead to long-term health problems.
Anyone can be affected from exposure to contaminated water, but small children, the elderly, and people already weakened by illness or fatigue are more vulnerable.
Last updated: 10 October 2012