For countries with cold winters the start of swim season is always wonderful. When the cold gives way to warm beach days and swimmable temperatures, it’s like a gift. In New Zealand, November marks the beginning of summer. Kiwis are gearing up for their time on the water, in the sun. However, recent news from Canterbury has profiled one community that won’t be able to jump in this summer. Due to chronic poor water quality, Waikirikiri River residents from Selwyn Huts are at a loss after being forced back from the river they have swum in, drunk from, and fished from for generations.

New Zealand’s lost river: The impact of a permanent “no swimming” sign

The Waikirikiri River, also known as the Selwyn, starts in the Rockwood Range of the Southern Alps and runs through South Canterbury, on the South Island. It’s the latest river to be deemed unswimmable in the area. The chronic failure of the Selwyn to meet recreational water quality health standards is part of a larger problem Canterbury area waterbodies are facing.

According to Environment Canterbury, only 64 percent of the rivers it monitors are swimmable.

In 2014 wadeable and boatable replaced swimmable, drinkable, and fishable as the water quality targets. Hence, the new minimum standards to protect peoples’ health from recreational water illnesses are secondary, rather than primary contact criteria.

Among other worries, secondary contact criteria allows for a much higher threshold of contaminants.

Worse off than the badly damaged Selwyn River is the lake into which is drains: Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora. Te Waihora is the largest lake in Canterbury, and the fifth largest lake in New Zealand. The lake is one of the most polluted water bodies in the country. As a result, this badly degraded water body is seriously struggling to support life.

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia, areal view of Lake Ellesmere

From swimmable to wadeable: What happened?

The conditions in the Selwyn-Waihora catchment are ripe for poor water quality. Firstly, there is an abundance of nutrient-rich runoff from farms adjacent to the river and lake. The area has significantly more beef and sheep farming, dairying, and agricultural activities than the rest of the country. In addition, climate change, drought, and water extraction for irrigation are impacting water levels and water flow. Consequently, water levels and flow are at all time lows in the watershed. Altogether, these factors have created the ideal environment for long term and recurring water quality issues, like Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms and toxic algae.

Due to the threat of water related illnesses from the water and the fish, no swimming, no drinking, no fishing advisories are commonplace in the catchment.

Image capture from Swim Guide, Selwyn River and Lake Ellesmere displaying 2015/2016 historical water quality status

Unswimmable water : The toll of New Zealand’s lost rivers

Selwyn Huts made the news in September 2016, mourning the loss of access to the river for which the community is named. The small community is located near the mouth of the river where it drains into Lake Ellesmere. Selwyn Huts residents can no longer swim, boat, or fish in the river at their feet. In fact they’re not even supposed to be wading in the river. The community’s loss and grief are palpable.

Unswimmable, undrinkable, unfishable water is devastating. In the Selwyn-Waihora catchment, the Ngāi Tahu (people of Tahu) have felt the impact on every aspect of their culture.

The Ngāi Tahu hold tribal authority to over 80% of New Zealand’s South Island. The Ngāi Tahu consider the Selwyn-Waihora catchment to be taonga, treasure. They refer to Lake Ellesmere as Te Kete Ika o Rākaihautū – The Fish Basket of Rākaihautū. The lake is one of the most important wetlands in the world due to the abundance and diversity of species residing there.

The animals that reside in and around these water bodies have suffered a major blow. The Selwyn used to support one of the largest brown trout fisheries in the world. The number of fish has dwindled to a few hundred.

In addition to their cultural significance, and the natural resources they provided to Maori and New Zealanders alike, Lake Ellesmere and the Selwyn are also popular swimming and recreational water spots.

Measuring the economic impact of “no swimming” signs

The impact of even a single beach closure or posting can be devastating to local economies. For instance, US studies found that visitors typically spend 35$ per person per beach visit. Even one day of a beach closure or posting could result in a significant financial loss. A study on Lake Michigan estimated “economic losses as a result of closing a beach due to pollution could be as high as $37,030 per day.”

Tourism is a 30 billion dollar industry for New Zealand, and is its second-largest export earner. Natural beauty is a big draw.

“Healthy freshwater ecosystems are fundamental to supporting the natural landscapes that are the primary reason visitors travel to New Zealand,” says Lesley Immink, chief executive of New Zealand’s Tourism Export Council (TEC).

Photo by Ben

It’s not just the South Island suffering water woes. In August 2016 Havelock North, in Hawke’s Bay, was hit by an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses when the drinking water supply became contaminated with E.coli from agricultural runoff. Over 5000 people became sick.

The criteria for swimmable water is typically the same criteria that allows a waterbody to support life. What does that mean for a community when they can’t swim, drink, or fish in their waters?

Current water quality from Environment Canterbury can be accessed here.

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