There is significant variation in water quality across the Region. Rivers (including streams) emerging from the mountains or areas that have retained their original vegetation cover tend to have very good water quality. The one exception to this is the Whangaehu River, which flows from the crater lake on Mt Ruapehu. It is naturally acidic and contains high levels of sulphur and heavy metals.

As rivers flow towards the sea, they pick up sediment and nutrients from the surrounding land. As would be expected, water quality in the lower reaches of rivers and streams is poorer than in the headwaters.

In the past, the biggest threats to water quality were municipal (eg., sewage), industrial (eg., meat works and fellmongers) and agricultural (eg., dairy shed effluent) discharges. Although considerable improvements have been made to discharges to water, further improvement is still possible and necessary.

The intensification in agriculture during the past 10 to 15 years has been especially marked in the dairy sector. Raising stock numbers increases the quantity of dairy shed effluent requiring disposal, the quantity of stock urine produced (a concentrated source of nutrients), and the opportunities for stock to access water bodies and their beds. The agricultural sector is recognising the impact it is having on the nation’s water bodies and has started to act. The dairy sector was the first to respond, with the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord (an agreement between Fonterra, the Ministry for the Environment, Regional Councils and others on an approach to enhance water quality). Such voluntary approaches are one way of lowering nutrient and faecal levels in the Region’s water bodies and the Regional Council supports them, although further improvements are needed. Further improvements will require a mix of regulatory and non-regulatory approaches that may alter over time.

Groundwater quality within the Region varies according to both depth and location. Generally, deeper groundwater is of higher quality. For example, shallow groundwater within the Horowhenua District near Levin has high concentrations of nitrates, which are believed to be the result of septic tank discharges and fertiliser* use on market gardens. There have been no significant changes in groundwater quality over the length of the Regional Council’s monitoring record (more than 15 years). There is no evidence that groundwater quality is deteriorating. The overall state of fresh water quality in the Region is as follows:
  1. The middle reaches of many rivers are unsafe to swim in because of bacterial contamination, or are unpleasant to swim in because of slime (periphyton) growth (Figure 5.1). Elevated nitrate and phosphate levels promote slime growth. The slime also impacts on fish and instream invertebrate communities.
  2. The lower reaches of many rivers have high concentrations of bacteria, nitrates, phosphates and sediments, and these levels are increasing.
  3. There is minimal contamination of surface water from heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other toxic substances.
  4. The quality of groundwater in the Region is generally suitable for stock needs and irrigation, with a low sodium hazard and a low-medium salinity hazard.
  5. Nitrate levels are high in shallow groundwater in parts of the Region, but the levels have not changed during the period of monitoring.
  6. Groundwater is free of herbicides and pesticides.

Figure 5.1
Suitability of water quality for contact recreation within the Region