Section A: Why Monitor Water?

A.1 Health risks

Water contaminated by human or animal excreta may contain a range of pathogenic (disease-causing) micro-organisms, such as viruses, bacteria and protozoa. These organisms may pose a health hazard when the water is used for recreational activities such as swimming and other high-contact water sports. In these activities there is a reasonable risk that water will be swallowed, inhaled (Harrington et al 1993), or come in contact with ears, nasal passages, mucous membranes or cuts in the skin, allowing pathogens to enter the body.

Research is continuing into the health risks associated with contamination of water by sewage and excreta. Until recently scientists believed that gastro-enteritis was the main health effect, but it is now becoming clear that respiratory health effects are also important, and may even be more prevalent than gastro-enteritis.

See Note G(i) for evidence on respiratory illness caused by water contamination.

In most cases the ill-health effects from exposure to contaminated water are minor and short-lived. However, there is the potential for more serious diseases, such as hepatitis A, giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, campylobacteriosis and salmonellosis (Philip 1991).

Adhering to the guideline values and using the framework set out in this document should ensure that people using the water for recreation or collecting shellfish for eating are informed of health risks, and can make appropriate decisions to avoid exposing themselves to significant health risks.

Do these guidelines measure the level of pathogens in the water? In fact it is difficult and impractical to do this directly. Instead, we measure the levels of ‘indicator’ micro-organisms, which indirectly tell us about the levels of pathogens. The marine guidelines were developed from many studies relating bacteriological indicators to illness in the general public after bathing (see especially the WHO review by Prüss 1998). These studies include, but are not confined to, those carried out at seven New Zealand marine beaches in 1994–95 (McBride, Salmond, et al 1998). The freshwater guidelines were developed from the findings of the Freshwater Microbiology Research Programme Report: Pathogen Occurrence and Human Health Risk Assessment Analysis, November 2002 (McBride, et al 2002).

The guidelines work with a defined ‘tolerable risk’ rather than no risk at all. For most healthy people water conforming to the guideline value will pose a minimal level of risk. However, water conforming to the guideline values may still pose a potential health risk to high-risk user groups such as the very young, the elderly and those with impaired immune systems.

See Note G(ii) for more information on health risks.

A.2 State of the environment reporting

Regional councils and the Ministry for the Environment have responsibilities under the RMA to monitor the state of the environment. Reporting on state is achieved regionally through state of the environment reports and nationally through national state of the environment reporting.

The purpose of state of the environment monitoring and reporting is to use environmental performance indicators (EPIs) to measure and monitor human activities and their effects on the environment. The Government’s objectives for the state of the environment monitoring and reporting are to:

  • systematically report on the state of New Zealand’s environmental assets
  • systematically measure the performance of its environmental policies and legislation
  • better prioritise policy and improve environmental decision making.

Over time, the information produced through monitoring environmental performance indicators will:

  • contribute to raising the level of knowledge about the state of New Zealand’s environment
  • increase our ability to report on environmental health and trends
  • provide the tools for effective evaluation of policy
  • provide the information base for more informed policy and management decisions.

This document serves as a monitoring protocol for two confirmed indicators for human health and values for marine and freshwater environments:

  • the percentage of monitored beaches in each grade
  • the percentage of the season beaches or coastal areas were suitable for contact recreation or shellfish gathering.

‘Beaches’ refers to both marine and freshwater recreation sites.

The national objectives of these indicators are to:

  • quantify the human health risks at recreational water sites and shellfish-gathering areas
  • measure the general state of recreational water areas
  • report on the overall suitability of recreational water areas for bathing.

See Note G(iii) for more information on state of the environment reporting.

Integrating public health and state of the environment data

The purpose of the microbiological water quality guidelines for marine and freshwater recreational areas is to help control the public health risk from microbiological contamination in recreational waters and to provide a framework for monitoring and reporting on the general health of beaches. Integrating the needs of both state of the environment and public health monitoring may present some challenges, but it is achievable.

Microbiological information is generated more intensively to keep stock of short-term variation that can affect the public health risk of water quality. This monitoring takes place on a weekly basis, although at times follow-up monitoring is required to identify the permanence of an identified guideline exceedance.

The purpose of state of the environment monitoring is to collect sufficient data to produce information on the general health of the environment. This information can then be used to measure how well our management practices, policies and laws are working, and whether environmental outcomes are being achieved. The beach grades generated through the combination of the catchment assessment and the microbiological assessment provide the state of the environment information to the public on the general condition of the recreational area with respect to public health risk. The microbiological information collected to assess the public health risk at the beach on a weekly basis is aggregated over five years to generate the Microbiological Assessment Category that is used in the beach grading process.

Section B: Who Monitors and Reports?

B.1 Roles and responsibilities

The Microbiological Water Quality Guidelines for Marine and Freshwater Recreational Areas have been developed for the agencies involved in the monitoring and reporting of recreational waters. This is primarily regional, territorial and unitary councils, District Health Boards and Medical Officers of Health.

During the development of this manual there was an overwhelming request from all those involved in beach water-quality monitoring for guidance from the Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Health on the appropriate delegation of roles and responsibilities for recreational beach monitoring. Determining precisely which agency is responsible for which roles in monitoring and reporting beach water quality for public health protection must be one of the first steps in developing a sampling and reporting programme.

Some regional, territorial and unitary councils have clearly defined these roles, basing their decisions on council ‘ownership’ of the roles, and the available resources and areas of expertise.

See Note G(vii) on different responsibility scenarios operating around the country.

The following section outlines an approach for clarifying roles and responsibilities at the regional level by way of protocols, agreed to by the different agencies that have a role in monitoring and reporting recreational water quality. This section also presents a recommended framework for the roles regional councils, territorial local authorities, unitary councils and health agencies will have with respect to recreational water-quality monitoring and reporting.

The Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Health have agreed on the following recommended framework for roles and responsibilities in relation to recreational waters.

  1. The regional council co-ordinates the monitoring and reporting strategy.
  2. The regional council implements surveillance and alert-level monitoring.
  3. The Medical Officer of Health reviews the effectiveness of the monitoring and reporting strategy.
  4. The regional council informs the Medical Officer of Health and territorial authority if alert or action levels are reached.
  5. The Medical Officer of Health will ensure that the territorial authority is informed.
  6. The territorial authority will inform the public when the action level is exceeded – the Medical Officer of Health will ensure the public is informed within agreed timeframes.
  7. If the action level is reached, the territorial authority will undertake nuisance monitoring and cause all proper steps to be taken to abate or remove the nuisance. On occasion it may be more appropriate for the regional council to undertake this duty. The Medical Officer of Health will provide advice and ensure that proper steps are taken by the territorial local authorities and/or regional councils.
  8. It is the responsibility of the Medical Officer of Health to ensure that sites with modified grades are audited in accordance with these guidelines.
  9. The regional council will collate the information for state of the environment reporting and a review of management policies.

See Note G(viii) for the legislative basis for these recommendations.

See Note H(xii) for an explanation of modified beach grades.

The Medical Officer of Health has a lead role, given his/her responsibilities under the Health Act, to ensure the proper steps are taken by the territorial local authorities to protect public health.

In some situations it may be more appropriate for the regional council to abate/remove the nuisance, as when the source of contamination has been identified as being within its jurisdiction (e.g. discharges of farm dairy effluent). Although the guidelines advise investigation of the nuisance, they do not require that steps be undertaken to remove it. However, taking proper steps to abate or remove the nuisance is a Health Act requirement, and it is an RMA requirement to remedy and mitigate, so removing the nuisance is a logical next step.

A legal opinion on legislated roles and an outline of the current monitoring and reporting scenarios around the country provided the background for the recommendation on roles and responsibilities.

See Note G(ix) for details of the legal opinion.

The Explanatory Notes also present a number of alternative roles and responsibilities frameworks that are applied by some councils around the country (see Note G(vii)). These illustrate that there are a range of options for ensuring that the public are able to make informed choices about their recreational activities. They are provided for agencies that do not have an effective roles and responsibilities framework in place and wish to use an alternative to the recommended framework. Regional councils, territorial authorities and health authorities must decide what best suits their circumstances, taking into consideration what has previously proven to be successful.

B.3 Regional protocols

The Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Health recommend that local government and public health services develop regional protocols that clearly identify a lead agency, which develops a monitoring protocol that specifies the details of:

  • the agreed roles and responsibilities protocol, including who is accountable 
    • At the time of writing, such protocols have been suggested for inclusion in the proposed Public Health Bill. The protocols outlined in the Bill relate to all matters of public health, of which recreational water quality is one.
  • how the programme will be implemented
  • what the management and communication/ education responses will be to exceedance events.

Each agency involved in the monitoring programme should also be consulted to ensure there is agreement on how each site is assessed.

These protocols should be based on the agencies’ respective legislative functions relating to recreational water-quality monitoring and reporting, with the aim of:

  • reflecting and clarifying local/regional conditions and arrangements
  • enhancing collaboration, operational co-ordination and the performance of their respective roles and responsibilities.

Consideration must be given to the role of non-regulatory groups, such as community groups and or iwi. Interactions between communities, authorities and organisations are a key requirement in monitoring, reporting and resolving water-quality issues.

When developing the protocols, consideration should be given to the expertise and resourcing generally held within the regional councils, territorial local authorities and by the Medical Officers of Health. For example, Medical Officers of Health have expertise in the implementation of health regimes, and regional councils generally have the technical expertise in water issues.

These protocols should detail who is responsible for each of the roles (i to ix) outlined in B.2, and copies should be held by each of the participating agencies. Protocols may also be needed when reviewing an event, or to justify actions during an event. In extreme circumstances they may be necessary as supporting material for litigation.

B.4 Abating the nuisance

Investigating, identifying and remedying a nuisance should be based on the expertise within the agencies and the functions of these agencies within their jurisdiction. How the problem is mitigated is at the discretion of the council, although the course of action taken should meet the approval of the Medical Officer of Health.

The guidelines do not specify that the cause of failure to meet the specified levels must be rectified. They merely require that the public is informed when beaches are not suitable for contact recreation. However, once a problem is identified, many councils – and, indeed, the public – will want it fixed. Some causes (e.g. broken sewers, illegal sewer–stormwater connections) are easier to fix than others, but are still difficult. Aged stormwater systems and rural run-off will require long-term planning and solutions, and may never be fully fixed. In these situations the territorial local authorities, regional councils and Medical Officer of Health may develop a strategy for reducing or eliminating the problem.

Failure to notify the public of a known health risk, which then results in damage to members of the public, may lead to legal action being taken against the agency responsible (regional council, territorial local authority or Medical Officer of Health) by affected groups or individuals.

All agencies involved in monitoring water quality should be aware of their legal obligation to protect the public health, and that failure to meet these obligations may result in legal action. Legal action can be avoided by notifying the public as soon as a health risk is identified.