How To Love Your Water

In the wake of the recent media commotion around clean water and what 'swimmable' really means, Oliver Vetter takes us to school on the issue. As an Oceanographer he knows the science – long story short it's (literally) a load of shit, and as Sustainable Coastlines' Wellington Project Manager, he knows what we can do about it. Love. Your. Water.


I’ve been in Aotearoa for three years and what I’ve witnessed is that Kiwis, on the whole, have a deeper relationship with their waterways and coasts than most others. It could be because, whether you’re on the North or South Island, you’re never more than 75km from the ocean – and a lot closer than that to your nearest stream or river.

There’s been a lot in the press recently about fresh water issues, particularly around the government’s new standards. There's a lot of misunderstanding out there, and I strongly suggest you to read the detail on how those changes are measured before you share the first link you see in Facebook outrage. Please read the references below.

I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty but here’s a very brief summary to get you started. Firstly understand the jargon – regardless of any other pollution sources the standard ‘Swimmable’ is only determined by E. coli levels, E. coli being a bacteria present in the guts of all warm blooded animals – yep, it’s the measurement of shit in the water, and works quite accurately as a proxy the probability of the disease carrying bacteria in that shit making you sick.

As someone who has watched good friends battle through water chemistry post-grad studies, I swear that water chemistry is by far the most time consuming, difficult, expensive and generally awful of all Earthly scientific data collection. 

A single data point can take days of careful collection, sampling, storage, then physical counting of the ‘colony forming units’ under a microscope. For this reason I became an ocean physicist, but the point is; E. coli measurements are relatively robust, cheap and easy to do.

Councils submit their water quality data to the Land Air Water Aotearoa (LAWA) website where ‘Acceptable’ was 260 E. coli counts per 100ml of water (about half a cup), ‘Alert’ was 260-550 E. coli and ‘Action’ was set at 550 E. coli counts. So at 550 E. coli counts they’d put signs up advising against swimming, taking kai, or any contact activity that might entail you drinking some of that water.

In their latest clean water document the government are proposing that to be ‘Swimmable’ a river must reach the ‘Fair’ water quality standard 80-90% of the time. This means they’ve shifted the definition of ‘Swimmable’ to 540 E. coli counts per 100ml – just below the level at which LAWA would recommend action (signs etc). That being said they have also recommended an increased suit of sampling, which would be advantageous to understanding a full picture of water quality, and they are setting goals to increase the number of ‘Excellent & Good’ rated rivers, from 55% to 70% by 2040. 

So that is what it is. But I don’t find it particularly relevant; wherever you sit politically, the public discourse is a positive step and unless you’re a bank or a billionaire you might be waiting a while for government intervention – Kiwis know there’s something wrong with their rivers, and they’re doing something about it.

At Sustainable Coastlines we do what we do because we see a need and we have motivation and opportunity to act. We focus on simple, local solutions to local, national and global issues. Simply put we run education programmes with hands on events to lock in the learning – beach cleanups in the summer and tree planting in the winter. Our winter programme ‘Love Your Water’ focuses on riparian planting as a practical solution to improve river water quality.  

Those areas we don’t have expertise in, we ask, we learn and we collaborate, then we pass on that motivation and opportunity to others. Each and every planting and restoration group I’ve been involved with, from Whangarei to Stewart Island, has taught me something new about the stream or the plants or the people who are on the ground, boots in the mud and hands on the plants.

Yes, we do riparian planting to reduce E. coli bacteria that are carried via shit into the river. But this is just one of the many economic and environmental advantages you get from riparian planting. It also helps; reduce sedimentation from stream bank collapse; soak up field runoff such as nitrate and phosphates; protect cattle from falling in the river; reduces disease amongst animals; reduces silt in harbours which improves shellfish and fish spawning habitat; native trees provide shade, habitat and spawning sites for native fish and eels; native birds return, which in turn propagate more trees; riverside plants reduce energy during flood events; cattle have shelter from wind and sun; farm workers are safer as fewer animals need saving from waterways… 

There are more; but what we offer as part of our Love your Water programme is an understanding of the issues and we provide the motivation and opportunity to enable people to be part of a solution. Last year I spoke to more than 3500 kids about these issues and connected hundreds with nature to look after the water that they love. We planted trees.

E-coli measurements are a simplification of what’s wrong with our rivers – “there’s just too much shit in them!” But it’s not the whole story. And while riparian planting is no silver-bullet solution, it’s a great goddamn start.

So let them argue. Let them follow; the restoration groups are out there leading, doing it for themselves and their families and their communities. Why not plant the waterways? Why not re-connect people with their waterways again? It’s more helpful than arguing over bull – or cow – shit.

– Oliver Vetter.


Sustainable Coastlines are out there with practical solutions that inspire Kiwis to take care of our coastlines and waterways. They're a partner charity of ours, meaning you can easily support them with one percent of your income by joining One Percent Collective. Learn more below.