Swimming in a contaminant soup

Auckland's harbours are a "soup of contaminants" according to the people who monitor them, and the new Safeswim scheme just approved by the council isn't going to change that. In fact, it will make the situation at most beaches look worse, because the figures will be more accurate and up to date. 

Mayor Phil Goff says the public will be shocked when they see the figures on faecal contamination. Taken over five years of monitoring fresh and saltwater, the figures charted up look like seas of red warning signs. The coastline measures are of enterococci and fresh water was monitored for E. coli. 

"People will demand to know what we are doing about it," Goff told Tuesday's Environment and Community committee. "Yes, there are solutions - and all will cost money. They are really expensive in total but if you bring it down to a person by person basis it's a small investment that we have to make. We have to be ready to respond, that we have the plans ready to go." He believed people were ready to make the change - by which he meant that they were prepared to pay the extra taxes likely for fixing a multitude of issues "in 21st century Auckland". 

Goff said the new Safeswim system, which will be launched on November 1, will mean Auckland will be the first city in New Zealand that tells people accurately how safe it is to swim at their local beach. It provides real time data using a modelling system and 120 remote sensors placed around overflow systems. It will also let people know of other marine hazards such as shark sightings or jellyfish attacks. It will not result in instant improvements in water quality. 

Committee chair Penny Hulse said the bottom line is the council just needs to be really upfront with Aucklanders. 

"It is no longer acceptable to have faecal contamination flowing into our harbours when it rains."

"It's not like anything has really changed - we are being more transparent," she told Newsroom. "We will know exactly what's going on on an hour-by-hour basis in our harbours and we can engage Aucklanders and do something about it." Hulse said the council wanted to do better than the Safeswim guidelines. "It is no longer acceptable to have faecal contamination flowing into our harbours when it rains," she said. 

A five year median faecal contamination chart - red is below minimum standards - showing in particular how polluted Auckland's freshwater sources are. Photo: Auckland Council

Councillor Chris Darby raised the issue of Auckland Transport taking responsibility for its share of the problem, saying 25 percent of Auckland's impervious surfaces were roads. The runoff from them was a significant contributor to the problem, and "we should not shy away" from addressing it. He pointed out that when metals from road runoff hit sediment, it sinks to the bottom of the sea and can't be extracted. "We are going to have to have a quality water-sensitive design plan for Auckland Transport," he said. "They can't continue to generate waste as they currently do." He also described some of AT's methods as "uninformed baggage of ignorance", saying it had a long way to go. 

Hulse turned the spotlight on NZTA, saying that once it was possible to measure the cost of road runoff, clean-up costs could be sheeted home to the national body. "I would like to see the cost-benefits done for the (proposed) east-west link," she said. "Watch this space." 

Hulse compared road runoff to a factory discharging nasties such as asbestos, saying you wouldn't allow it to do so - and she suggested looking at collecting the cost where it lies.

"There's an awful lot of finger-pointing at farmers, but we need to pick up our game."

The council's Healthy Waters Strategy and Resilience Manager, Andrew Chin, says it will be interesting to see if there's an upswing in public complaints about water quality once the Safeswim programme goes live. He says it's likely that under the new system there will be more beach closures, thanks to the predictive modelling used - although some beaches may be closed less frequently. Under the old system, samples would be taken by helicopter on a Wednesday, they would be at a lab for two days and published by the weekend. But if there was heavy rain in between those days, the actual enterococci numbers would be much worse. Safeswim will still take actual samples but there will be much more monitoring equipment, closer to the shoreline, and calculations will take into account factors such as tides and weather. 

"It's all part of getting people well informed," he says. The council also hopes it will make them more aware of littering, and change behaviour such as washing cars on concrete. 

"Aucklanders are pretty clued up on water quality issues," says Hulse. Some major stormwater work, particularly by the former North Shore and Waitakere councils, has already been done, she says, but the inner city has been neglected. "It's sewers and beaches, stormwater runoff, paths and transportation, sediment from land runoff - we need to deal with them all.

"There's an awful lot of finger-pointing at farmers, but we need to pick up our game," she says. 

So cars are our cows?

"I think that's a good t-shirt." 

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