The Clean Water package

New Zealanders want to be able to swim in our rivers and lakes; it’s an important part of our Kiwi way of life. The Clean Water package aims to make an additional 10,000km of waterways swimmable – that’s roughly equivalent to a river that stretches from here to South America.

Improving our water quality

The Government has announced a plan to improve New Zealand’s waterways so that 90% are ‘swimmable’ by 2040. At the moment, 72% are considered safe to swim in, most of the time. Improving our lakes and rivers will take time and there is more we need to do in the years ahead to make it happen. The Clean Water package is an important step in achieving our goal of better water quality for New Zealanders.

We have good quality rivers and lakes overall, but we need to do more

Compared to many parts of the world, New Zealand is lucky to have good quality waterways. But our waterways are under pressure in rural and urban areas. New Zealanders are clear we need to do more. Healthy rivers and lakes are important not just for swimming but for cultural, recreational and economic reasons too.

Achieving the new target

Having good information about our rivers and lakes

We want communities to have good information at their fingertips. New maps on the Ministry for the Environment website show where water is okay for swimming and where improvements are needed.

Investing in rivers and lakes

Applications were invited for the first round of funding through the new Freshwater Improvement Fund, which will contribute $100 million towards improving waterways. (This funding round is now closed for applications) This, along with another $350 million invested in water clean-ups, will make a significant contribution to improving water quality in the long term.

Keeping animals out of the water

Proposed regulations on fencing off stock from waterways are an important part of the plan to improve water quality. The rules progressively apply to dairy, pig, dairy support, beef and deer farms from this year to 2030, relative to the steepness of the country. This is expected to cost $367 million.

Other initiatives in the Clean Water package

The National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management is being strengthened to support the new swimming targets.  Among other things, the updated policy clarifies how councils set nitrogen and phosphorous levels to tackle periphyton in rivers (slime and algae), and how to monitor macroinvertebrates (aquatic animals). It also changes the requirements for how councils maintain or improve water quality.

Our swimmable rivers and lakes

Changes to improve our waterways

Until now, the national bottom line meant all waterways needed to be safe for wading and boating. Councils set their own goals for swimming, with over 200 river and lake sites monitored throughout the country. Under the new proposal, over 50,000 kilometres of waterways will need to be managed so that water quality for swimming improves over time. At the moment 72% of all waterways are swimmable, with a target of reaching 90% by 2040.

What we mean by ‘swimmable’

There is a series of tests to determine whether a river is safe for swimming. These tests measure E. coli levels in the water. E. coli is just one indicator of how healthy a river is, but it is an important one. A swimmable river is one categorised as excellent, good or fair. You can find more information on the swimmable categories page.

There isn’t enough data to model E. coli levels across all lakes, so we have used the volume of toxic algae (cyanobacteria) to measure whether a lake is swimmable.

Managing the risk of infection

For a river to be swimmable under the new guidelines, the risk of getting sick from infection has to be less than 1 in 1000 more than half the time. The recognised safe level for swimming is below 540 E. coli per 100ml. It’s about managing risk. As graph 1 shows, above the 540 level, the risk of infection increases rapidly.

What else makes rivers unsafe for swimming

There are a number of factors that can make rivers unsafe for swimming. For example, fresh water quality can change very quickly after heavy rain, when sediment and other contaminants are washed into the water.
With any river, there are times when it is not safe to swim, for example, after heavy rain or flooding. Check with your regional council or the Land Air Water Aotearoa website for the latest information on the safety of popular swim spots in your area.

Find out more

Read the consultation document on the proposals for improving freshwater management.

Public submissions closed on 28 April 2017.

See the Water quality for swimming categories (attribute states) in detail.

More information on the swimming categories for E. coli in the Clean Water package

Check out the Water quality for swimming maps to find out if your local river or lake is suitable for swimming.