Knowledge base

Safeswim – A Sea Change in Assessing Beach Water Quality Risk

Following an independent review in 2016, Auckland Council recognised some fundamental limitations of its recreational water quality programme (Safeswim). Despite complying with the relevant guidelines, the Safeswim programme did not represent international best practice in managing risks associated with the public recreating in water. Specifically, Council was concerned that the historical, traditional monitoring approach failed to adequately describe and effectively communicate the health risks to the public associated with contact recreation in coastal areas.

One of the key concerns with a “traditional” monitoring and reporting programme is the time it takes to obtain monitoring results under the approach promoted by New Zealand’s Microbiological Water Quality Guidelines for Recreational Areas. This is because natural systems are dynamic, and water quality changes more rapidly than the monitoring frequency (weekly) and the analysis time (up to 48 hours). Therefore; the monitoring does not accurately capture the water quality of a beach, and monitoring results are out of date as soon as they are available. This means that management actions are always retrospective and therefore beach users may be unknowingly exposed to elevated health risks, or warnings are issued unnecessarily.

The use of modelled and forecasted data, are the only methods that make water quality health risk information available to beach users in advance of exposure through recreational activity. The delayed notification system inherent in the traditional monitoring approach, no matter how rapid the test result is available, is unable to provide information in advance of exposure to risk.

It was recognised if modelled bathing beach water quality data could be made visible via the internet to the public, in an intuitive website we could better serve our community. This paper details the significant gains Auckland Council has made, in a short amount of time, in informing our communities about the real time risk of swimming at their local beaches.