National targets for improving water quality for swimming

New Zealanders want to be able to swim in their rivers and lakes. It’s an important part of the Kiwi way of life. In 2017 the Government 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.

How the targets will be achieved

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (Freshwater NPS) directs regional councils to 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 freshwater.

Read more about the changes 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. In March 2018 they made their draft regional targets publicly available. They will make their final regional targets public by the end of 2018.

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 terms of its suitability for human health in all freshwater management units, not just the rivers and lakes that count towards the target. Freshwater management units cover all freshwater 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 and during the months 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 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.

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.

There are a whole lot of factors that can affect whether a water body is suitable for swimming, but we’ve focused on the 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.