New website shows New Zealand's unsafe swimming spots

NZ 21/12/2017

Kiwis will be able to check where it's safe to swim this summer and avoid dangers like toxic algae.

On Wednesday, Environmental council partnership Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) released an updated version of their online water quality-checking tool.

'Can I swim here?' allows users to monitor beaches, lakes and rivers around New Zealand for potential dangers, such as high levels of bacteria.

While the tool has existed for some time, the update includes more information from weather services and surf patrols. It monitors E coli results for freshwater sites and enterococci results for beaches. 

For the first time, the tool will include toxic algae results for rivers and lakes, which has been especially prevalent in recent weeks, thanks to the warm, dry weather.

Hawke's Bay Regional Council water quality scientist Anna Madarasz-Smith says swimmers need to be mindful of the possibility of algae, which can be particularly harmful to small children and dogs.

"In many of the swim sites around New Zealand, it's only really the bacteria you'll be looking for," she told Newshub.  

"But in some areas, like stony bottom rivers or some of the lakes, potentially toxic algae can be an issue as well."

Mrs Madarasz-Smith says LAWA needs Kiwis to help them stay aware of potential toxic algae, by noticing anything unusual about the places they cool off at over summer.

"It's really difficult for us to monitor that risk, so we're informing people and educating them how to see it themselves."

Some regional councils will be taking water readings weekly between November and March, while others will update them fortnightly.

Even if LAWA's data is a week or two out of date, Mrs Madarasz-Smith says Kiwis should still consider the last update useful information. 

"It's really user-friendly, so green means go for it, amber means there might be a slightly elevated risk, but it's generally still okay for swimming, and red means pick another spot for today."

If a swimming spot isn't listed on 'Can I swim here?', Mrs Madarasz-Smith advises people to keep an eye out for large numbers of birds, which can infect the water with fecal matter, or livestock standing upstream in the waterway.

LAWA also advises staying out of the water for two to three days following heavy rainfall.

Many of New Zealand's waterways have become less useable than in the past, with some rivers now completely unswimmable.

Mrs Madarasz-Smith doesn't believe the country's water quality has changed much, but that Kiwis are now "far more aware and informed" about where it's safe to swim.

"What we're trying to do is give them the really good spots to swim in and we've got so many throughout New Zealand. Even here in Hawke's Bay, we've got fantastic beaches that have fantastic water quality. 

"There are some areas that, under some circumstances, you may want to avoid, but generally the sites that are not suitable for swimming at all times are very, very low. So it's just trying to inform people, where's the best place to go today?"