Department of Health

Key messages

  • Surface water is pumped from rivers, creeks, dams and shallow bores.
  • Contaminated surface water can make people sick.
  • If there is no other source of drinking water and you must drink surface water, there are steps you can take to minimise the health risks.

Surface water is pumped from rivers, creeks, dams and shallow bores. These water sources are close to the land’s surface and are easily contaminated.

Drinking contaminated water can make people sick. Surface water contaminants can include:

  • disease-causing microorganisms from humans, livestock and other animals
  • industrial, agricultural and other run-off that may contain chemicals.

The risk is highest when surface water goes untreated.

Minimising risks

If there are no other options and you must drink surface water, you can follow these steps to minimise the risk:

  • Protect surface water sources from livestock, septic tank overflows, and chemical spills.
  • Check upstream for contamination sources. Heavy rain may wash pollution into the water source upstream, blue-green algae can grow during the warmer months, and there may be a source of chemical contamination.
  • Install a filter to remove particles from the water and increase the disinfection rate.
  • Disinfect the water to kill disease-causing microorganisms. Chlorine is a common, cost-effective drinking water disinfectant. If the water supply has a risk of Giardia or Cryptosporidium, you should disinfect with chlorine and ultraviolet light.
  • Test the water for chemical contaminants. Chemicals of possible concern are listed in the Australian drinking waterExternal Link guidelines .
  • Your local council or catchment management authority can tell you about water quality risks in a stream’s catchment.
  • Ensure that you have a buffer distance between the water source and any septic tank system. Comply with the Code of practice – onsite wastewater managementExternal Link , and contact your local council for further advice.
  • See are you using unsafe river water in your home? for information on the health risks associated with surface water around the home.
  • Businesses and community groups using surface water for drinking and food preparation can find guidance in making sure your private water supply is safe – surface water.

Reviewed 09 October 2023


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