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a river with people standing on rocks looking in with lots of questionmarks and a sort of green and yellow wash over the images with slightly threatening overtones
(Photo: Getty Images, design by Tina Tiller)

SocietyDecember 15, 2023

Summer is for swimming. But what’s in the water?

a river with people standing on rocks looking in with lots of questionmarks and a sort of green and yellow wash over the images with slightly threatening overtones
(Photo: Getty Images, design by Tina Tiller)

Why are so many of the best places in the country to swim, especially in urban areas, so polluted? And how do we solve the problem? Shanti Mathias investigates. 

There’s a place Marnie Prickett returns to often, in her head if not her body. The river is cool and glassy, like jade. The river current is slow. When she dives in, the cold makes her briefly  breathless; then she feels free, weightless and dreamy. 

She is swimming in the Rangitīkei River at Vinegar Hill, delicious in summer heat. When she paddles to the shore, she watches people from different communities, classes and age groups enjoy the water too. “It’s this beautiful place that we could all enjoy that connected us to each other,” she says. “I could see the cohesion that comes just from having beautiful spaces to enjoy together.”

Prickett is a freshwater advocate who has been part of the Choose Clean Water campaign for several years, with a scientific background in freshwater ecology and agricultural science. But before that, she was simply a person who loved to swim. “I came to campaigning from the recreational side,” she says. 

a green river with a rocky beach and lots of people swimming in the sunshine
The Rangitīkei River at Vinegar Hill (Photo courtesy of Marnie Prickett)

Aotearoa is a country of water. We have about 15,000 kilometres of coastline and more than 180,000 kilometres of mapped rivers, not to mention the many small streams and ponds that don’t end up on maps. As summer temperatures rise, the joy of a dip becomes a national pastime. In a warmer future, the appeal of a free way to cool down will only increase. 

But having lots of water doesn’t mean there are heaps of places to swim. Sewage spills and agricultural runoff contaminate many of those swimming spots, especially in population centres. With new research only emphasising the extent of the problem and freshwater standards under threat by the new government, what does the future hold for outdoor swimming in Aotearoa? 

By the numbers, the gulf between the current conditions of New Zealand’s freshwater and the minimum standards set in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) is enormous. A recent report from research group LWP shows that three-quarters of land in New Zealand is contributing more E.coli to our freshwater systems than is allowed. Nitrogen and phosphorus levels, mostly from agricultural fertiliser runoff, are also high, and can cause overgrowth of algae in freshwater, depriving other species of the sunlight and oxygen they need to survive.

While sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen levels are measured as a way to understand the impact of water contamination on non-human species, E.coli is sampled as a consideration of human health – the bacteria only lives in the guts of mammals, and is transmitted through poo. Ninety percent of Waikato and Manawatū require E.coli load reductions, with most of the rest of the North Island – Gisborne, Northland and Taranaki – have more than 70% of waterways requiring contaminant reduction too. Most E.coli strains are harmless, but some can cause diarrhoea and other infections. The presence of the microbe can also be a sign that other, more dangerous bugs could be in the water.  

That’s the science, but the extent of damage to New Zealand’s waterways can be pictured more literally on websites like Can I Swim Here and Safeswim. These use a simple colour-coding system to show whether water is OK to enter, based on regular water sampling. Green means the water is clean, and red means swimming is “inadvisable”. Most of central Auckland’s beaches were black for weeks when a major sewage pipe burst in Parnell in September. That’s the strongest warning and it means “do not swim”. 

a beach and the sea with bloue sky
Part of the Point Chev coast in Central Auckland, a popular central swimming spot (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

It hasn’t always been necessary to log into a website to decide whether to go swimming. Māori have always used, and respected, the water of Aotearoa. Terina Raureti knows this well. She grew up swimming competitively, drawing sharp lines with her body in the wobbling blue jelly of the pool. But when she moved from Gisborne to Dunedin to study at the PE department of the University of Otago, she suddenly had another way to understand swimming: as part of her whakapapa. “It wasn’t so much about learning to swim, but that swimming was part of life,” she says. “Water was the place for real life things, for finding kina and pāua, crayfish and whitebait.”

For many in Ōtaki, where Raureti now lives and teaches swimming, that’s still the case. Accordingly, Raureti thinks practically when she’s holding her swimming lessons, which she does in the river when possible. Are kids learning to carry things, like dive equipment, as they swim? Do they know how to use fins? Are they learning to understand how to read the water; to see how it is shaped by currents and weather, and make safe decisions accordingly? As she talks, she demonstrates different strokes, the strong swift movements of a practised swimmer. 

an astonishingly clear blue sky and sof blue water with three small kids on the otehr side of the shore playing in the sand
Terina Raureti’s nephews play in the Ōtaki River (Photo: supplied)

Māori are shamefully over-represented in drowning statistics, but Raureti finds a focus on this statistic unhelpful. “There are generations of disconnection from the water,” she says. “We need to be following the right tikanga in engaging with the wai. We know how to look after the waterways, we have that mātauranga.” Instead of “drowning prevention” or pollution, she’d like to see the focus on the pleasure, and the right, to swim outdoors. In her PhD research, she has elaborated on the idea of “kauora”, understanding the many roles of swimming: to provide, play and protect, and through that, to enhance wellbeing for the whole whānau. 

Raureti mostly teaches swimming in the Ōtaki awa, which ripples out green and clear from the forests of the Tararua Ranges and into the shining blue of the Kāpiti Coast. Before she teaches a lesson, she goes and checks the river. If it’s too high, brown and cloudy, lessons will happen in the pool instead. “The awa can turn quickly,” she says. “That’s been the challenge, navigating the pool routine to contribute to pūkenga in the awa.”

While the Ōtaki River is relatively unpolluted, Raureti has seen what happened in many rivers, including ones that her whānau is connected to. “The waterways my parents and great grandparents used, we can’t swim in them any more – there’s a generation of pollution in the water.”

A white woman with short darck heair and collared shirt smiling at the camara with water in the background
Marnie Prickett loved swimming long before she became a freshwater activist (Photo: Supplied)

The social value of swimming is what makes people want to protect their local waterways, Marnie Prickett has found. She used to work for Auckland Council, getting West Auckland kids enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the streams in their backyards – streams that were often very polluted. Kids loved jumping and playing in the local streams, where they were joined by “beautiful creatures” that lived in the water: eels, insects, birds. She remembers talking to a kid who described to her how his family often didn’t have the money or ability to get to the beach, but they wanted to play in the creek, which was right there. 

While there was some recognition of the environmental value of having streams and the ecosystems around them, the value of having these free, safe places for recreation wasn’t as clear. To Prickett, this seemed to delay action on countering pollution. “The risk of kids getting in human poo was not recognised. They put up signs, but it wasn’t a priority to fix it.” 

This “putting up signs” mentality arguably extends into the digital water health monitors. What does it achieve to have this information available? “I worry that it’s seen as a solution in and of itself,” Prickett says. The solution should be “to look after the stream”, not simply to tell kids that their favourite splashing spot isn’t good for them. Prickett lives in Wellington now, and we walk along the city’s waterfront as we talk, huddled against the rain. The stippled surface of the sea looks like all is well, but as the city’s infrastructure ages, the waters are frequently filled with sewage overflows

This is common across the country. While the intent behind water monitoring is good, the deluge of unhappy headlines can mean dedicated swimmers choose to ignore the warnings. In Christchurch, swimmer Anne Harrison, who started swimming regularly when she heard an interview about the benefits of cold water on the radio, doesn’t check the water quality any more. “There’s such a lag between a test and an app online,” she says. “I just keep my mouth shut, don’t put my head under, and hope for the best.” 

She mostly swims in the sea, submerging herself in the waves in Christchurch’s New Brighton beach. The water quality is much better there than it is at Corsair Bay and other swimming spots in Lyttelton Harbour. When she started swimming, she was going through a hard time, and now finds that submersion in the wild water is important for her mental health. “Things might be shit, but you get in the water. You think, ‘if I can do this, I can do anything.’”

grey sky and tumbling waves with swimmers in the water. It looks cold!
Anne Harrison and her swimming Whatsapp group jump in regardless of the weather or pollution levels (Photo: Supplied)

Conversations about the effect of New Zealand’s poor water quality on swimming are hardly new. There have been Taylor Swift knockoffs, documentaries and countless articles with water warnings and information about water quality. But councils are investing in solutions, so it might not always be this way. 

Right now, Te Auaunga Creek has a long-term poor quality water sticker on the SafeSwim website. The stream, which wends behind the Mount Roskill and Mount Albert suburbs of Auckland before emerging at the aptly named Waterview, is a popular walking spot. Visit on a typical day and you’ll find that the water is a little milky, with sluggish tuna undulating through the current, and the dark green of a generation of native tree planting not quite lovely enough to distract from the smell of sewage. In its lowest reaches, the creek tumbles into the highest waterfall on the Auckland isthmus, and on the hottest days, the warning signs about the water quality aren’t enough to prevent children from jumping into the pool. 

But the long-term alerts on Te Auaunga, also known as Oakley Creek, and nearby Meola Creek are not permanent. Their main source of pollution is wastewater overflows, many of which should be fixed by Auckland’s new Central Interceptor pipe when it’s operational from 2026. 

cloudy grey green water with bushes around it
Meola Creek in polluted, flooded condition after rain, February 2023 (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Local Shayne Cunis trains for triathlons in the area, and has seen both streams in their most opaque and smelly condition, usually when a combined stormwater and wastewater pipe has spilled after rain. Water-quality improvements will make an immediate difference to his life. 

“I foolishly got into triathlons, so I spend a lot of time swimming in the harbour,” he says, with an Iron Man wristband poking out from the cuff of his shirt. “I know at the moment, every time it rains, you shouldn’t swim for two days.” When Cunis was growing up in Auckland, clean water was taken for granted; going to beaches to paddle was a given, and swimming pools were an afterthought. That isn’t the case for his grandchildren – and given he’s the programme director of the Central Interceptor, he should know the impact of old and failing water systems on this city by the sea.  

an older white man in an orange high vis shirt with a wistful smile
Watercare’s Shayne Cunis swims regularly in the harbour – adding impetus to the Central Interceptor project (Photo: Supplied)

I’m interviewing him at Norgrove Avenue, one of the tunnel’s shaft sites in Mount Albert. Cunis is emphasising that the $1.2 billion, 14km tunnel, with several side sewers, is a truly huge undertaking; the 30-metre-deep shaft to his right makes the point for him. It’s a breakthrough day: Domenica, a smaller tunnel-boring machine, is currently progressing through the rock beneath us, and will soon chew her way back into the light. 

Cunis gestures over the digger and the crane; on the other side of a retaining wall, a pallid stream creeps through a concreted watercourse. As part of their time on the site, the Central Interceptor team has planted native trees and trapped pests in the unique rock forest that fringes the golf course on the other side of the stream. Once the tunnel is operating, the stream – and Meola Creek, which it connects to – should quickly improve in water quality, as will Te Auaunga

Someone taps Cunis on the shoulder. The action is about to start. In hard hats and steel-capped boots, we peer down to the bottom of the shaft, where the wall starts spewing concrete crumbs into a handily located skip. Glints of Domenica’s teeth are visible through the wall, like the mouth of a particularly muscular lamprey. I have to remind myself that this is a small tunnel-boring machine: Hiwa-i-te-Rangi, which is drilling the main tunnel, is much bigger.  

When Domenica is through, the gathered workers cheer, with only a little choreography from the energetic communications team. We are lowered by a crane to the bottom of the shaft. Groundwater drips through the walls, creating puddles. Stoked workers ask me to take their photo with the machine. When the tunnel is operational, wastewater will fill this space, while the shaft above will be filled in and become a quiet cul-de-sac again. 

The Central Interceptor, with its many engineers and their careful calculations, is a bet that Auckland, and its wastewater production, will grow; and that in 100 years’ time, the people of this city will still want to swim.

two men in orange shake hands in front of a slightly looming circular machine with lots of teeth for gnawing through rock
Central Interceptor workers celebrate Domenica the tunnel-boring machine reaching the Norgrove Avenue worksite (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

The wastewater pipe is meant to last a century, but what will happen to other cities, particularly Wellington, with water systems in equally dire need of enormous investment? The expense and timeframe of the Central Interceptor indicate just how much political and financial capital is required to make wastewater overflow headlines a thing of the past.

Outside of cities, the solution to water contamination involves asking fundamental questions about an economic model that relies on drenching fields with fertiliser to grow cows that make milk and money while excreting bacteria. 

Swimmers are, necessarily, aware of this. In Te Waipounamu, passionate lake swimmer Paul Jaquin mostly swims in the deep, clear water of Lake Wakatipu, beside Queenstown. “There’s an exhilaration when you get in, you’re around ducks and fish and kingfishers and occasionally we see an eel,” he says. “That’s part of the adventure.” 

a white man with a huge beam smiles for the camera in a silky dark lake surrounded by impressive mountains
Paul Jaquin swims in a hidden lake near Milford Sound (Photo: Paul Jaquin)

But there are unwanted organisms in the water too. Jaquin has participated in an ambitious project to try to swim every lake in the South Island, which has meant lots of checking the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) Can I Swim Here? monitor. “The sampling frequency isn’t good,” he says, “so sometimes it says it’s good to swim when it’s not.” 

Jaquin is frustrated for swimmers in Canterbury and the North Island who have to deal with agricultural runoff, and worries it “might put people off”. Some of the solutions are straightforward, and already in action: monitor the water, fence off rivers and streams from livestock, ensure waste in the water is treated first, and make sure not too much water is taken for irrigation. 

In conversations about water quality, the blame is often placed on farmers, framing clean water and productive farming as entirely at odds. Farming lobby groups like Federated Farmers seize on this, Prickett says, but they don’t represent all farmers, many of whom are deeply committed to water quality. There is common ground

Examining the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) is helpful to counter misinformation about what farmers are being asked to do. “Federated Farmers have talked about how the statement means every waterway needs to be pristine. That’s categorically untrue, and it creates fear and anger in the farming community – because if every waterway needs to be pristine, then no land use can exist,” Prickett says. “The policy says we need healthy waterways – [farmers] can have some impacts, but [the rivers] still have things living in them.”  

a brownish green river running under a white bridge and a sky heavy with water
The Waikato River runs through agricultural land, and has high levels of contaminants in many areas. (Photo: Getty Images)

The NPS-FM, which lays out requirements for councils to follow environmental regulations under the Resource Management Act, was initially implemented in 2014, under a National government. It was updated in 2020 as part of the government’s broader freshwater work programme, which put the principle of Te Mana o te Wai as the centre of decision-making and introduced a Freshwater Commission. But with water underpinning almost all land use, the implementation of Te Mana o Te Wai is difficult. Lan Pham, an appointed commissioner, has already quit to become an MP, frustrated by the concept that water has to be separated from other kinds of land use. 

Now, the policy might be axed, and it’s not clear what will replace it. In the 2023 election, the Act Party consistently campaigned against Te Mana o te Wai, citing it as an example of co-governance, and the new government has agreed to “rebalance Te Mana o te Wai to better reflect the interests of all water users”. National is also planning to repeal the previous government’s update to the RMA within its first 100 days in government.

Marnie Prickett is not impressed. “[The new government] want to get rid of it, because they know that it works, because they are on the side of people who want to exploit the environment.”

The ever-present spectre of climate change adds urgency to hard questions about water. In Europe, cities have made concerted efforts to make urban water safe to swim in, for the environmental benefits and so urban residents have a low-cost option for cooling down. Climate-related disasters like Cyclone Hale and Cyclone Gabrielle can make swimming more dangerous, by covering the sea and beach with slash in areas with forestry. At the same time, warming temperatures make swimming even more appealing, even if we have marine heatwaves to thank for it. 

Water offers swimmers surrender to the natural world and a tether to the past. People have always longed for water, and they want that connection to endure in the future. Paul Jaquin, the Queenstown swimmer, hasn’t been swimming for a few weeks when I call him – he’s on paternity leave, immersed instead in the world of a new baby. 

But when he thinks about swimming, he thinks about his daughter. “I want to introduce her to swimming,” he says. “I want it to be normal from a safety point of view, from an enjoyment point of view.” He wants that for everyone else, too. “Swimming really gives you that connection to the environment. Just get out there and swim.”

Keep going!