12 Feb 2018

Auckland swimmers unaware of contamination on beaches

8:34 pm on 12 February 2018

By Nikki Mandow

People have been swimming at popular Auckland beaches, unaware that sewage from yesterday's storm has contaminated the water.

Heavy rain mixed sewage into stormwater which ended up flowing into creeks and into the sea.

Auckland Council has red alerts in place at more than 60 of the city's 84 beaches; red alert means a "moderate to high risk of infection" from swimming.

But the word hasn't reached everyone.

Aucklanders Jimmy de Lama and Saida Sanchez and their three children spent a hot Auckland afternoon at Mission Bay beach, unaware of the contamination warning.

Mr de Lama said he wouldn't have brought the family if he had known.

"I wouldn't be here at all. I would have gone to another beach."

Mayor Phil Goff says the council is moving to a digital system, encouraging locals and visitors to go online to get news about beach quality - via the council's Safeswim website.

They are also introducing large digital signs at beaches, which provide real-time information about water quality.

Mission Bay beach was one of the first to get a digital sign.

But it's not much good if people don't see the signs - or don't know to go to the Safeswim site.

For Lindsay Gabrielski and Chris Reynolds it's their second day in a row at Mission Bay - swimming in the contaminated water.

Ms Gabrielski said she felt nervous finding out about the no-swim warnings after having been in the water.

"I'm a bit upset that there were no warning signs, so we went swimming without any knowledge that there was possible contamination in the water."

Craig McIlroy, general manager of the council's Healthy Waters division, said the message needed to get to people before they set off for the beach, not once they get there - hence the focus on Safeswim.org.nz.

"We found beach users pay little attention to warning signs at beaches once they have invested the time and effort to get to the beach; they will swim regardless of what signs say.

"We also found people get used to seeing signs, especially when they are part of a cluster of public messages, which means they don't get noticed and lose impact. In some cases signs were tampered with or even stolen, and with conditions changing regularly, keeping signs up-to-date is not practical," Mr McIlroy said.

Yesterday's massive beach contamination isn't an isolated incident. Over the last few weeks, sewage overflows have closed beaches in Auckland on a number of occasions. Milford Beach on Auckland's North Shore has been closed at least three times since Christmas.

Andrew Mackintosh, founder of Facebook page "Stop Sewage overflows in Auckland" said the situation would only get worse as Auckland's population grew.

Even by the Auckland Council's own calculations, its major "central interceptor" project would only solve 80 to 90 percent of the problem - and more needed to be done, he said.

"The fact of the matter is that the long-term plan to resolve this is still going to have sewage overflowing into our streams and harbours.

"The language we hear from Watercare and Healthy Waters at the council, is that being to design a sewerage system that would not overflow during some storm events is an unrealistic thing to do."

Mr Mackintosh believes it's budget holding council back.

"Where there's the will and the money, there is the way."

He said as the population of Auckland increased and with the possibility of climate change bringing more extreme weather events, the situation would get worse. The answer was to completely separate sewage and stormwater, he said.

"The reason that the sewage system is overflowing is that it's also carrying the stormwater. When there's a significant rain event, the stormwater volumes get massive, and they overflow the sewerage system. If stormwater gets carried separately from sewage, sewage spills will never happen."

Although many houses - including all new builds - have separated sewage and stormwater, Mr Mackintosh said often the two streams were combined later in the main sewage system."

Mr Mackintosh said Auckland Council had recently applied for a 35-year stormwater network discharge consent, a worrying signal.

For once, the Mayor and healthy water campaigners appear to be on the same page.

As part of the proposed 10-year budget, Mayor Phil Goff wants to lift expenditure on the water system from $5.9 billion to more than $7bn over the next 10 years.

He also wants a fixed proportion of Auckland rates set aside for environmental projects, including completely separating stormwater and sewage systems so when it rains, the two don't mix.

"I'm asking Aucklanders for a targeted rate so we can do in the next decade what at the moment the council says will take more than 30 years. I think they'll say yes and I think they'll support the targeted rate.

"If we don't have the resources, we can't do the work."

Consultation on Auckland Council's 10-year budget will take place between 28 February and 28 March this year.

Work on the billion dollar central interceptor project - a 13 kilometre long, four and a half metre wide tunnel to store sewage and to handle stormwater overflows - should start next year, Mr Goff said.

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