How safe is our water?
They’re as common a sight in Pittwater as surfboards and chip-stealing seagulls: signs advising swimmers to avoid ocean and estuary beaches after heavy rain due to water pollution.
According to Beachwatch, a branch of the State Government's Ofﬁce of Environment and Heritage, swimming in polluted water exposes people to organisms called pathogens, which can cause a variety of health problems including gastroenteritis, ﬂu-like illnesses, dermatitis, ear, nose and throat infections, sinusitis, and deep tissue or blood infections through open wounds. Children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk.
So just how safe is it to take a dip in local waterways. Should we risk it?
While maintaining and improving the health of Pittwater’s beaches is effectively the joint responsibility of Sydney Water and Pittwater Council, several other agencies also have a stake in keeping local swimming spots clean.
The Sydney Coastal Councils Group, a coalition of 15 councils adjacent to sydneys marine and estuarine environments, plays a large role, as do Beachwatch, the Environment Protection Authority, and Streamwatch, a joint water quality monitoring initiative of Sydney Water and the Sydney Catchment Authonty.
Beachwatch, which monitors pollution levels daily at 130 beaches across Sydney, as well as the Hunter and illawarra regions, says local swimming spots are in good health. Its report last year rated water quality at every ocean beach between Palm Beach and Manly as either good or very good, Meaning pollution levels are low. In total, 11 harbour and ocean beaches on the peninsula earned the top rating of very good.
Ocean water quality sampling data from Pittwater beaches is passed to the council's Coastal Environment Centre (CEC) at North Narrabeen, and is then incorporated into community education programs.
As Sydney’s infamous summer storm season approaches,Sydney Water has installed more than 15 stormwater quality improvement devices (SQIDs) along Sydney‘s ocean and estuary beaches, preventing around 1000 tons of litter and sediment from being washed out to sea each year.
Pittwater Council's Catchment Management and Climate Change Manager, Jennifer Pang, says the council is also working to reduce stormwater pollution on local beaches.
"Stormwater management is being improved by developing stormwater management strategies, implementation and maintenance of stormwater quality improvement devices, development controls, environmental compliance, and stormwater education," Ms Pang says.
"Council will at times carry out project specific water quality monitoring as the need arises. It also conducts monitoring if there is a suspected pollution issue as part of its enforcement processes."
An estuary is a partially enclosed body of water that forms where rivers or creeks meet the ocean and fresh water mixes with the salty water of the sea. The Pittwater local government area (LGA) is home to two significant estuaries: Narrabeen Lagoon and the 17.5 sq km Pittwater Waterway itself.
One of four coastal lagoons on the peninsula, popular Narrabeen Lagoon is managed jointly by Warringah and Pittwater Councils. Warringah Council tests lagoon water quality fortnightly between October and April and the good news is that the fortunes of all four are on the up. Warringah Council's 2013/14 Lagoon Health Report Card gave the Narrabeen waterway a B (Very Good) rating, up from a C (Fair) grade the previous year.
The health of Pittwater's freshwater creeks is monitored via Streamwatch water quality sampling carried out by the CEC at four locations. "To support this program they also run four family-friendly water bug monitoring activities to educate the community on the need to protect our waterways and monitor the freshwater ecology," says Ms Pang.
The council also applies water sensitive urban design principles to many developments, playing fields and properties, as well as water management strategies such as enhancing riparian corridors (the interface between land and a river or stream).
The Pittwater LGA is also home to a number of wetland environments, including Warriewood, and Careel and Winnerremy Bays. Careel Bay is the most significant wetland area, as it contains a combination of natural features rare in the Sydney region that provide habitat for a variety of marine life and bird species.
The Warriewood wetlands are the largest remaining sand plain wetlands in northern Sydney.
What can you do?
Local residents have an important role to play in improving the health of the peninsula's waterways. Sydney Water says the most effective way to reduce stormwater pollution is to stop it from entering the system in the first place. Residents can do this by:
- Washing cars on grass rather than on the road, preventing dirt and detergents from running into stormwater drains:
- Putting rubbish in the bin - litter dropped in the street gets washed into waterways during rain;
- Sweeping rather than hosing footpaths and driveways - hosing with water carries dirt, soil and other waste into street drains;
- Planting native plants, which are best suited to Australian conditions and require less fertiliser and water than non-native varieties;
- Ensuring cars are regularly maintained and do not leak oil or fuel.