Recent sunshine on the Northern Rivers isn’t enough to warrant a dip in Ballina’s oceans and waterways with the council warning pollution post-floods could take several weeks to subside.
Council workers were testing for the presence of faeces in the water after two sewage treatment plants in Lismore were damaged when floods first broke levees on 28 February.
Lismore’s two broken plants had been dumping around four megalitres of raw sewage per day into the Wilsons River ever since.
The Wilsons River fed into Ballina’s Richmond River but Ballina Shire Council Environmental Officer Tom McAully Rix said it was impossible to guage the impact of the raw sewage further downstream.
Updates were being sought from the Lismore City Council on the status of the plants at South and East Lismore, Mr McAully Rix said.
Something in the water
Ballina Shire Council information online said water samples were tested for the presence of a bacteria called enterococci.
‘Enterococci is found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and excreted in faeces and rarely present in unpolluted waters,’ the information said.
‘The bacteria is found in very high numbers in raw sewage which makes it a good indicator of sewage pollution,’ the information continued.
‘Studies have shown a strong relationship between elevated levels of enterococci and illness rates in swimmers.’
The information noted enterococci itself didn’t cause illness, but its presence meant illness-causing sewage and possibly other pathogens were in the water.
Council workers weren’t checking waters for anything besides faeces but Mr McAully Rix said they would undertake targeted sampling if they received reports of other contamination.
‘We’ve heard about oil drums floating downstream and being washed up on beaches but no specific events requiring sampling,’ Mr McAully Rix said.
‘But unless there’s a specific incident like a petrol station getting flooded or something like that, we won’t be testing for other contaminants,’ he said.
Water quality results can’t be guaranteed
Council workers were said to be taking samples of Ballina Shire waters on Thursday with results expected to be released to the public next Tuesday or Wednesday.
The latest test results for the Ballina Shire came from samples taken on 14 April and were available via the Ballina Shire Council website.
They showed results for samples taken at fourteen sites around the shire including Shaws Bay; Lake Ainsworth; The Spit (the dogs beach part of Missingham Beach); The Serpentine (to the north of Missingham Bridge on the western side); and Lighthouse, Shelley and Seven Mile Beaches.
Results ranged from bad through poor and fair to good but Mr McAully Rix said various factors meant water quality results at any one time couldn’t be guaranteed.
‘Oceans are harder to predict, particularly with tides, swell, wind and currents,’ Mr McAully Rix told The Echo on Thursday.
‘The water quality can change quite dramatically within a short amount of time,’ Mr McAully Rix said.
‘On the hide tide you’ll get cleaner, bluer water coming in but on the lower tide you’ll get a lot of dirty water coming out the river,’ he said.
Mr McAully Rix said sampling had shown bad water quality in Ballina’s beaches and rivers near estuaries at low tide.
Dogs, fish and marine life beyond the Northern Rivers all at risk
Mr McAully Rix said the council had warning signs at beaches and waterways about the flood-induced hazards and the public seemed to be taking the council’s advice seriously.
There weren’t many people swimming, he said, and just a handful of surfers taking the risk at beaches.
The NSW Food Authority was also warning fishers to take extra care and to avoid consuming shellfish from flood-impacted waters.
A spokesperson for Ballina Vet Hospital advised people against letting dogs swim or drink from oceans and waterways in the Ballina Shire.
The spokesperson said while a direct link between water pollution and illnesses recently reported to the hospital couldn’t be confirmed, there were several ‘bugs’ going around for dogs, including stomach bugs.
Mr McAully Rix said because this year’s floods were unprecedented, it was too soon to say what sort of impacts the pollution would have on the marine environment beyond Ballina.
Research was happening at Southern Cross University into potential impacts, Mr McAully Rix said.
Further north in the Byron Shire, more water quality test results were expected to be published on the Byron Shire Council website on Thursday afternoon.
Byron Shire Council workers were only taking samples from five locations: Tallow, Main and Clarkes Beaches in Byron Bay and Torakina Beach and Simpsons Creek in Brunswick Heads.