National targets for improving water quality for swimming

New Zealanders want to be able to swim in our rivers and lakes; it’s an important part of the Kiwi way of life. We now have new national targets for improving the quality of rivers and lakes for swimming.

The targets

The Government has set a national target of making 90 per cent of New Zealand’s large rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040, with an interim target of 80 per cent swimmable by 2030.

The targets follow public consultation earlier this year.

How the targets will be achieved

Councils must work towards the national targets

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (Freshwater NPS) is being amended to include the targets. New policies mean regional councils must work towards these targets and report on progress. 

The Freshwater NPS is the main direction from the Government to regional councils about how to manage fresh water.

Read more about the changes being made to the Freshwater NPS in 2017.

Regional targets will contribute to the national target

Regional councils are required to develop regional targets to contribute to the national target. They must make draft regional targets available to the public by March 2018, and make their final regional targets public by the end of 2018.

This means that, over the coming year, each regional council will work with their communities to decide which rivers and lakes will be improved, when, and by how much, in order to contribute to the national target. Each council will be looking at the actions needed to achieve the targets.

Every regional council will also need to report regularly on the improvements being made. That means everyone will have access to information about which rivers and lakes are improving, and by how much.

Water quality needs to be improved

Regional councils are required to improve water quality in all freshwater management units, not just the rivers and lakes that count towards the target. Freshwater management units cover all fresh water in their region.

Councils must monitor all freshwater management units (at representative sites) to check progress towards achieving their targets. This is known as ‘grading monitoring’ and must be done monthly. Grading monitoring uses a minimum of 60 samples over a maximum of five years. It will tell you whether water quality is improving over time. If water quality is not improving in terms of E. coli and cyanobacteria, the council may need to make changes to the way it is managing water.

Extra monitoring at recreational sites

In places where people swim (or other primary contact recreation), councils must monitor E. coli levels weekly. This is called ‘surveillance monitoring’. Councils are now required to investigate sources of microbiological contamination if E. coli levels reach levels where the risk to human health starts to jump (260 E. coli per 100ml), and inform the public if levels get too high (over 540 E. coli per 100ml). These requirements are in line with the “Action” and “Alert” modes in the 2003 Microbiological Water Quality Guidelines for Marine and Freshwater Recreational Areas.

More detail is on this factsheet.

How the national targets work

The national targets are based on five categories, where the best three (blue, green and yellow) are suitable for swimming, and the worst two (orange and red) aren’t.

The aim of the national target is to:

  • increase the proportion of rivers and lakes that are suitable for swimming more often
  • decrease the proportion of time that rivers and lakes are unsuitable for swimming
  • get improvements across the board.

What it means for you when you swim

The targets mean that water quality will have to improve from what it is now and, over time, rivers and lakes will be suitable for swimming more often.

The targets are underpinned by swimming maps which show which rivers and lakes are in each category. These maps are based on averages modelled over time, so they won’t tell you the state of any particular river or lake right now. But they can give an overall idea about how suitable a river or lake is for swimming, based on long term monitoring.

To get the most up-to-date information about the state of any river or lake, check out the LAWA website or the regional council’s website – see Council maps and websites.

It’s important to note that although the targets and categories talk about swimming, there are lots of other activities which bring people into contact with water (eg, kayaking or fishing). The new targets are intended to make New Zealand’s lakes and rivers better for all activities that involve immersion in water.

‘Swimmable’ is measured differently in lakes and rivers

There are a whole lot of factors that can affect whether a water body is suitable for swimming, but we’ve focused on two that we consider are the best indicators of potential health risks.

In rivers this is the amount of E. coli in the water as measured over time, while in lakes it’s also based on the amount of cyanobacteria (toxic algae).

Find out more detail about the swimming categories.