Department of Health

Key messages

  • Victorian waterways are often used for rest, recreation and health benefits.
  • Potential health hazards vary by water quality and the activity involved.
  • National guidelines help manage recreational water risks.

Victorian waterways are often used for rest and recreational activities, which can be good for health and wellbeing. However, there are also potential hazards both in and around the water.

Recreational water use

There are three kinds of recreational water activity:

  • Primary contact recreation, where you are in direct contact with the water, can be fully immersed and could swallow water. This includes surfing, water skiing, diving and swimming.
  • Secondary contact recreation, where you have direct contact with the water but are unlikely to swallow it. This includes paddling, wading, boating and fishing.
  • Passive recreation, where there is no contact with the water. This includes scenic appreciation, walking and picnicking around the water.

Potential health hazards vary by water quality and the activity involved. In general, the more contact with the water, the better the water quality should be.

Potential health risks

Hazards include:

  • accidents
  • exposure to the elements
  • microbial contamination
  • chemical pollution.

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.

Microbial contamination can lead to outbreaks and illnesses. Water contaminated with faeces can also pose a risk of infection.

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 short.

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.


  • Avoid drinking untreated water.
  • Try not to swallow water during recreation.
  • Check current weather conditions and warnings.
  • Look for signs and warnings posted about water quality, such as warnings about blue-green algae blooms.
  • Avoid swimming near stormwater outlets.
  • Wait at least two days after heavy rain before getting in the water.
  • Wear appropriate footwear to avoid cutting your feet.
  • Cover cuts and abrasions with waterproof dressings before entering the water.
  • Rowers should avoid doing eskimo rolls or capsize drills in poor quality water.
  • Take a shower after water-based sport.
  • See your doctor if you are injured or become unwell after water-based sport, and let them know about your recent activities.

Guidelines for risks management

The guidelines for managing risks in recreational water ensure that recreational water is managed as safely as possible.

The Australian and New Zealand guidelines for fresh and marine water quality outline the principles and management framework for natural, semi-marine and freshwater resources in Australia and New Zealand.

Reviewed 05 December 2022


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