Beachwatch water quality monitoring has Bello back in the swim

Published on 20 September 2022


Bellingen Council has launched its new Beachwatch program in time for the swimming season. Swimmers will now have access to weekly updates on reliable water quality information at 7 popular swimming sites across the Shire to help them decide when and where to swim.

Council has partnered with the NSW Government’s Beachwatch program which monitors and reports recreational water quality at swimming sites along the NSW coast. Water samples are collected and tested for bacteria, showing signs of faecal pollution, and whether it is safe for swimming.

“In a state-wide first, freshwater sites have been included in the Bellingen Shire monitoring” said Bellingen Shire Mayor, Cr Steve Allan. “Sampling begins this week and will continue through until after the Easter Holidays in April, covering the most popular times for swimming in our Shire.”

The swimming sites have been determined due to the likelihood of contamination and the consequence of contamination due to amount of use. The current program sites are:

  • Never Never River – Arthur Keoughs Reserve
  • Bellinger River – Lavenders Bridge
  • Bellinger River – Mylestom tidal pool
  • North Beach – At Surf Club
  • Urunga Lagoon – Urunga Lido
  • Hungry Head Beach – At Surf Club
  • Dalhousie Creek – At Surf Club

“Recreational water can sometimes be unsuitable for swimming, especially after rainfall when stormwater, wastewater and agricultural runoff can overflow.” Mayor Allan said. “Routine water quality monitoring measures the impact of pollution sources at swimming sites over time. This enables the effectiveness of stormwater and wastewater management to be assessed, and highlights areas where further work may be needed”.

The first results will go live this Friday.  Swimmers will be able to monitor recreational water quality each week via weekly posts on Councils social media or via the Beachwatch website.   

Frequently Asked Questions

Where do you sample and how often?

Seven swimming sites are sampled weekly in the swimming season (between September and April) and data shared with NSW DPE’s Beachwatch program.

Sample sites were determined due to the likelihood of contamination and the consequence of contamination due to amount of use. The current program sites are:

  • Never Never River – Arthur Keoughs Reserve
  • Bellinger River – Lavenders Bridge
  • Bellinger River – Mylestom tidal pool
  • North Beach – At Surf Club
  • Urunga Lagoon – Urunga Lido
  • Hungry Head Beach – Near Surf Club
  • Dalhousie Creek – Near Surf Club

2022/23 is the first season that Council has done this sampling program. It will take time to build a picture (model) of how the stressors at each site effect the water quality there.

What do we sample for?

We sample for Enterococcus bacteria.

Enterococcus is a bacteria that naturally occurs in the intestines of warm-blooded animals - mammals and birds.

Enterococcus is a fecal-indicator bacteria, and is the best practice measure for recreational water safety across the country and around the world.

When enterococcus is present in the water it suggests that fecal contamination may have occurred and other pathogens, viruses, or bacteria may be present in the water that can cause sickness. 

Enterococcus is therefore measured to indicate the risk of getting sick from other illness-causing pollutants in the water.

Enterococci have a greater correlation with swimming-associated gastrointestinal illness in both marine and fresh waters than other bacterial indicator organisms, and are less likely to “die off” in saltwater.

We record the water temperature at the time of sampling as this may impact bacteria growth.

Electrical conductivity is also recorded along with the tidal phase so that in the case of a high bacteria level recording it can be determined if the fresh or salt water is having the most impact on the result.

What does “Poor” or “Bad” Water Quality mean in the Beachwatch program?

A “Poor” rating is a 2 star rating (out of 4) with between 201-500 colony forming units per 100 ml. This means that bacterial levels indicate a substantially increased risk of illness to bathers.

A “Bad” rating is a 1 star rating with more than 500 colony forming units per 100ml. This means that bacterial levels indicate a substantially increased risk of illness to bathers.

The star rating categories are derived from the microbial assessment categories used in the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Guidelines for Managing Risks in Recreational Waters 2008.

Swimming in contaminated water can lead to gastrointestinal illness, ear infections, skin rashes, and potentially worse. Children and people suffering from autoimmune disorders run a higher of getting sick after swimming in polluted waters.

Sample results are reflective of a moment in time and are an indicator of activity in the catchment in that moment. Results need to be analysed over the long term to determine trends that contribute to water quality. Council hopes that we will be able to develop a predictive model for swimming water quality from the data collected over multiple seasons. 

How does enterococcus end up in the water?

There are several ways in which enterococcus bacteria can end up in swimming water. These possible sources of contamination have been assessed for each site both prior to sampling occurring (eg: are there septic systems in the vicinity?) and at the time of each sample being taken (eg: how many people are swimming at the site at the time or what was the rainfall prior to testing).

Wildlife: Wildlife may input faecal bacteria into waterbodies. Usually waterfowl are the main contributor.

Agriculture:  Intensive agriculture can cause localised threats to water quality where proper runoff protocols do not exist. Livestock with unrestricted access to watercourses can also contribute.

Sewage: via mismanaged or untreated wastewater. In urban areas, sewage can end up in recreational waterbodies as a result of combined sewage overflows, leaks, misconnects, and aging infrastructure. Rural areas largely rely on septic systems to treat wastewater. Septic systems require sufficient space to groundwater tables and routine maintenance in order to properly treat wastewater.

Pets: Pet owners who do not pick up after their pets threaten water quality. One 10 cent-sized piece of dog waste contains 23 million faecal coliform bacteria.

Human shedding: Humans toileting in or adjacent to waterbodies or washing themselves in waterbodies.

Stormwater & Urban Runoff:  Stormwater and urban runoff is the number one source of beach closures, and can make the effects of all of the above sources of pollution much worse. When towns and cities experience rain, this puts pressure on aging infrastructure systems. When the ground is saturated, septic systems essentially act as cesspools, so untreated water is released into the groundwater. Any pet, wildlife or agricultural waste is much more likely to get picked up by rain and drain into a nearby waterbody.

Low flows in creeks and rivers means that there will be higher concentrations if there is a contamination.

Why is there a lag in time between sample and notification?

The water samples are taken to a nationally accredited laboratory in Coffs Harbour directly after sampling. Here they are incubated to grow the bacteria so that it can be counted. This takes a couple of days to return a result.

There is no quick -result sampling method available for bacterial contamination.

What does Council do if a Poor or bad reading is recorded?

As a part of the Beachwatch program, Council has developed a strict protocol around management responses for poor water quality readings.

  • Notify the public eg. on Beachwatch and Council’s web pages, via social media platforms or media releases
  • If source of significant contamination is identified, regular communication is provided until the incident and/or clean-up of impacted site and affected areas has been complete
  • Re-sample at regular intervals until site quality improves. May sample at alternative locations to try and determine source of pollution. Re-sampling is not possible or suitable if flush event (heavy rainfall/flood) is continuing.

Public health advice for recreation activities after a flood or storm

Never swim in floodwaters. Unpredictable currents and submerged hazards are very dangerous. The water may also be contaminated with sewage or chemicals. This contamination may continue for some time and affect recreational waters.

NSW Office of Environment and Heritage recommends that you do not swim in oceans for 24 hours after heavy rain. Avoid rivers, lagoons or estuaries affected by floodwaters and runoff for three days.,stormwater%20drains%20and%20sewage%20outfalls.