Recreational Water Quality

Recreational water

Cotter Campground in the ACT
<strong>Cotter Campground in the ACT</strong>

The ACT is fortunate to be surrounded by nature reserves and areas that can be used for bushwalking, camping, fishing, boating and swimming. There are a variety of water bodies used for recreational purposes including lakes, ponds and rivers. The following are popular recreational water bodies used by Canberrans:

The use of recreational bodies of water holds risks to those using it.

The greatest potential risk is from microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, parasites and algae. All waterways contain these microorganisms, but their numbers vary with flow rates and contaminant concentrations.

Contamination with microorganisms can lead to illnesses. The most common illness from poor water quality is gastroenteritis. Respiratory, skin, ear and eye infections are less common. These illnesses are usually mild and  resolve after a short period of time, however, if symptoms are worsening or are not resolving, see your doctor.

Agricultural and urban run-off can introduce chemicals, stormwater, litter, sewage and animal waste to the water. Heavy rain can produce more run-off and lower water quality putting water users at risk for several days following rainfall.

Monitoring of recreational water sites

Several agencies in the ACT Government monitors recreational waters, including: 

  • ACT Health Protection Service undertakes microbial monitoring of major recreational sites during the recreation season.
  • The Environment Protection Authority provides year-round analysis of water for blue-green algae.

Transport Canberra and City Services (TCCS) manage the recreational use of Lake Tuggeranong, Lake Ginninderra, Molonglo Reach and the Molonglo River corridor. They make decisions on the recreational status of the water bodies using the ACT Guidelines for Recreational Water Quality.

The guidelines break down recreational use into two categories:

  1. Primary contact recreation involves whole-body contact in which the entire body or the face and trunk are frequently immersed, or the face is frequently wet by water spray. It is likely that some water will be swallowed, inhaled, or come into contact with ears, nasal passages, mucous membranes, or cuts in the skin. Examples of primary contact recreation include swimming, diving, water-skiing, windsurfing and white-water canoeing.
  2. Secondary contact recreation may involve incidental contact with water in which only the limbs are regularly wet and in which greater contact is unusual. There may be occasional and accidental immersion through accidents. Examples of secondary content recreation include boating, fishing, canoeing, and rowing.

The results of monitoring recreational water bodies is published on the Transport and City Services website (TCCS). Information includes whether a recreational site is open for Primary or Secondary contact. 

The National Capital Authority (NCA) is responsible for the management of Lake Burley Griffin (LBG), including water quality monitoring for recreational use. Information regarding Lake Burley Griffin can be found on the NCA webpage.

As testing results are updated weekly during the recreational season, they cannot account for changes in water quality post-sampling such as rainfall events or major inflows into the water body. Recreational water users should check results on the TCCS website and signage at the site before undertaking any water-based activities. Information about the location of signage can be found on the Access Canberra website. The status of recreational water sites published online and signposted is an indicator only.

Important note: Water users are advised to avoid using water bodies likely to receive inflows for several days following heavy rainfall events, or where heavy algal blooms or scum layers are present. This advice is regardless of the currently listed recreational status.

Microbial water quality

Recreational waters generally contain a mixture of pathogenic and non-pathogenic organisms. These pathogens may be derived from other bathers, sewerage effluent overflows, domestic, rural and native animals. The pathogens include viruses, bacteria, protozoa and helminths.

Microbial water quality is strongly influenced by factors such as rainfall, which generally lead to relatively short periods of elevated faecal pollution. 

Recreational waters, especially after heavy weather events, can become contaminated and adversely affect the microbial water quality leading to increased health risks such as:

  • Gastroenteritis
  • Respiratory illness
  • Ear infections
  • Skin and eye problems. 

Please see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms after swimming in recreational water bodies.

During the recreational season (October to April) ACT Health Protection Service samples water every week from recreational sites to assess their microbial quality. Samples are taken at the start of the week and are analysed by the ACT Government Analytical Laboratory for the presence of the faecal indicator organism, intestinal enterococci.

Results of this assessment, together with an assessment of algae activity, determine whether a recreational site is opened for Primary or Secondary contact. Current recreational site status can be found on the Transport and City Services website (TCCS).

Blue-green algae

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are a type of bacteria that can live in recreational waters and usually grow on the surface of water. Low numbers of blue-green algae are a normal part of the ecosystem in most waterways, including lakes, rivers, creeks and wetlands. 

Blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria) in Sullivans Creek, Canberra, ACT
Blue-green algae bloom in Sullivan's Creek, ACT (Source: CSIRO)

Under certain circumstances, algae can multiply rapidly and can create an algal bloom. This can discolour the water, form scums, produce unpleasant tastes and odours and reduce the water quality. Drought and the increased temperature in summer may result in an increase in visible blooms and surface scums on waterways.

Some types of blue-green algae can produce toxins that may be harmful to humans and animals.

Exposure can occur through:

  • direct contact of skin, eyes, mouth or nose with affected water during water-based recreational activities such as swimming, diving, water-skiing, windsurfing, canoeing, rowing or other boating activities
  • breathing in fine water spray or droplets created when the surface of affected water is broken during water-based recreational activities
  • accidental swallowing of affected water
  • consumption of fish or other seafood from affected waterways.

The possible health effects vary with the type of toxin and the route of exposure. These include:

  • direct skin contact with blue green algae toxins can cause skin and eye allergic reactions or irritation
  • accidental swallowing of affected water or consumption of food from affected water can cause symptoms of gastroenteritis, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever and abdominal pain. In extreme cases, damage to liver cells and nerve cells can also occur
  • breathing in fine water spray or droplets from affected water during recreational water activities can cause asthma or hay fever-like symptoms.

To avoid potential exposure to blue-green algae it is important to:

  • follow the advice of any information signs around affected waterways
  • avoid any recreational activities that could involve contact with affected water
  • do not let pets drink or swim in blue-green algae affected water
  • closely monitor children and pets near affected waterways and keep them well away from the edge of the water 
  • not eat mussels, yabbies or crayfish from any waterway that has been affected by blue-green algae
  • wash any fish caught for consumption in clean water. The fish should be gilled, gutted and any internal organs disposed of and not eaten. Ensure animals are not allowed to eat the entrails of these fish.

It is recommended not to eat fish caught where severe blooms that have lasted for extended periods of time. This is because they may contain the neurotoxin BMAA which may accumulate through the food chain from cyanobacteria to zooplankton to fish to humans. While the presence and health impacts of BMAA have yet to be proven, avoidance is currently the best policy.

If you’ve had skin contact with affected water, you should immediately remove any wet clothing, and wash or rinse any skin that has been in contact with the affected water. For more information, refer to our Blue-green algae fact sheet. If you feel unwell, please see your doctor. 

The Environment Protection Authority conducts analysis of recreational waters for blue-green algae, year-round, at various sites in the ACT. Blue-green algae can be dangerous through the cooler months as primary contact can occur when it washes onto land.

Dogs have also been known to suffer ill effects from contact with blue-green algae at any time of the year, when running on beaches or swimming in the water. For more information on blue-green algae monitoring procedures and alert levels visit the Access Canberra website.

The current status of recreational sites, incorporating a blue-green algae assessment, are published on the Transport and City Services website (TCCS).

Need more information?

Related Regulation, Legislation, Policies and Documents

Factsheets and other Information

Related Websites

Health Protection Service
Office hours: 9am to 4:30pm Monday - Friday
Address: 25 Mulley Street, Holder ACT 2611
Phone number: 02 5124 9700
Fax number: 02 5124 5554

Page last updated on: 6 Sep 2021