During the 1989 Christmas holiday period, a large outbreak of gastroenteritis occurred among persons staying at a caravan park in southern New South Wales. Review of local hospital records found that 77 per cent of patients presenting with infective diarrhoea between 29 December and 3 January had stayed at the caravan park. In a retrospective cohort study we compared rates of illness among caravan park patrons exposed to different water sources. Stools were tested for pathogens and convalescent sera for viral antibodies. Rain and reticulated river water sampled from the caravan park were tested for bacteria and viruses. Of 351 persons interviewed at the caravan park, 305 (87 per cent) reported an illness characterised by diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Of 196 persons who used reticulated river water for drinking or ablutions, 175 (89 per cent) became ill compared with 47 of 72 persons (65 per cent) who did not use this water (relative risk 1.4, 95 per cent confidence interval 1.2 to 1.6). The outbreak was probably caused by a 27-28 nm small round structured virus found in the stool from one ill person. High levels of faecal coliforms in the reticulated river water and enterovirus in sediment samples suggest that the outbreak was caused by sewage contaminating the reticulated river water through a break in the pipe directly over the underground water tanks. To prevent such outbreaks, poor water and sewerage system layouts should be avoided and nonpotable water should be clearly labelled. Where feasible, all camping-ground water should stem from town supplies.