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West Wave in Henderson was hit hard by the January flooding (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
West Wave in Henderson was hit hard by the January flooding (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMay 30, 2023

‘Everything got fried’: How January’s floods messed up NZ’s biggest swimming complex

West Wave in Henderson was hit hard by the January flooding (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
West Wave in Henderson was hit hard by the January flooding (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

It’s taken months to repair West Wave in Henderson. It’s going to be many more before it’s back at full capacity.

When the floodwaters arrived, all the cars disappeared. “They were washed into the fences,” says Garth Dawson. He’s upstairs at West Wave, New Zealand’s largest aquatic centre and West Auckland’s most popular public facility, waving towards the tarmac below us. “The whole carpark just disappeared.” 

The cars went, so did everything else. So much water arrived on January 27 – officially the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Tāmaki Makaurau – that next door at Henderson Bowling Club, the artificial turfs lifted up and floated away. “They were ripped off and washed down to the far end,” says Dawson.

Floodwater in the Waikumete stream.
Floodwaters rise in the Waikumete Stream on January 27. (Photo: Dylan Reeve)

At 5pm that day, as rainfall built toward its peak, West Wave contained several hundred swimmers, says Sarah Clarke, the facility’s manager. Sensing an emergency, staff used whistles to clear the pools. The carpark was overflowing so swim school kids were evacuated to nearby restaurant The Falls to allow parents in to pick them up. “We needed to get everyone out of there,” says Clarke.

Water was approaching West Wave’s doors from both sides. Built in 1989, just in time for the 1990 Commonwealth Games, the huge facility – including nine swimming pools, a hydroslide, lazy river, diving boards, sauna and steam rooms, several gyms and basketball courts – is sandwiched between two waterways: the Waikumete and Opanuku streams. (The area is sometimes referred to as Twin Streams – one of West Wave’s swim classes is named exactly that.)

Swimmers enjoy West Auckland swimming pool West Wave.
West Wave is usually full with happy swimmers. (Photo: Supplied)

Until that day, the area had never flooded. “It’s never breached its banks – ever,” says Clarke about the Opanuku Stream. Her eyes widen when she remembers how quickly water levels rose in the streams that day. “I’ve lived here 20 years now. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It was literally a torrent. You would not have wanted to have been out there.” 

We were out there. Rain caused carnage across the region. Roads turned into swamps, flooding cars, buses and motorways. Slips cut residents off in Muriwai, Piha and Karekare. Entire streets flooded in Grey Lynn and West Auckland. Some homes were, quite literally, under water. Four people died, and emergency rescue staff were pushed to breaking point. Elton John’s Mt Smart Stadium re-do was cancelled. Western Springs became a swimming pool, forcing Laneway organisers to cancel the festival for the third year in a row, this time not because of Covid.

A photo taken from a car showing flooding in Henderson.
Flooding in Henderson on January 27. (Photo: Dylan Reeve)

At West Wave, as the evacuations continued, a lone staff member monitoring the underground pump room noticed something strange. Murky water was pooling in the downstairs network of rooms and tunnels where all the equipment that keeps the facility’s pools functioning is contained.

The floods had arrived, but the water wasn’t coming in through the front doors like everyone imagined. Instead, it was reversing back through the stormwater drain. “The stormwater system backed up,” says Dawson, Auckland Council’s leisure network services manager. “It came in the wrong way.”

On that day, 250,000 litres of brown river water poured into West Wave. It took four days to pump it all out, and weeks to assess the damage. More than four months later, the facility where 800 people go to swim every single day remains mostly out of action. Just three of its nine pools are open. All leisure pools are closed and have been drained, meaning only lane swimmers, divers and toddlers taking their first strokes can use it. On the day The Spinoff visited, it was eerily quiet: everyone who wanted a lane could easily have one to themselves.

The smell of coffee and sausage rolls no longer fills up the foyer. Screams from happy toddlers can’t be heard from the leisure pools. The wave machine, hydro slide and lazy river are closed, so too is the recently refurbished spa and sauna. On Facebook, users post comments like, “Are the wave pools and slide open yet please?” and, “Can’t wait to come back,” on a daily basis. Everyone is missing it. 

West Wave is being resurfaced as the pool's flood recovery continues.
Staff resurface West Wave’s leisure pool as the flood recovery continues. (Photo: Supplied)

West Wave has been operating at no or low capacity since the end of January, and its estimated re-opening date isn’t until September. That, says staff, is out of their control. “We want it open just as much as customers do,” says Clarke. “We’re trying to make the most of a difficult situation.”

So what’s the hold-up? “Everything got fried,” says Clarke. “All our electrical distribution boards were all wiped out. Our variable speed drives … every dial switch for every pump, it all has to be replaced.” The age of the facility is an issue. Like a classic car, some parts are hard to find, and others need to be built from scratch. “We’re having to order these things from all over the world,” says Dawson. He deadpans: “Pumps like water on the inside of them. They don’t like water on the outside.”

Now into its fourth decade, a $6.5 million upgrade program was already underway to replace West Wave’s ageing lights, improve climate efficiency by replacing gas boilers with heat pumps and electrical boilers, and install a self-chlorination system. Much of that work has now been bought forward. Below Dawson and Clarke, contractors can be seen working on the leisure pool’s new floor. The water’s been drained, all the tiles have been ripped off and replaced by a shiny new surface. “You never see the bottom of this pool dry,” says Clarke. It hasn’t happened in more than 10 years. “It’s not normal.”

West Wave's pools filled with happy swimmers.
West Wave, in happier days. (Photo: Supplied)

West Wave’s lengthy time out has shone a light on a problem facing the entire region: a lack of pools. “There are gaps,” admits Dawson. New facilities mooted in Avondale-New Lynn, Ormiston-Flat Bush and Westgate are yet to eventuate. As a result, pools in Mt Albert and Albany are being pushed beyond to their limits because they’re dealing with West Wave’s overflow. “Mt Albert’s super-busy,” admits Dawson.

Ensuring floodwater can no longer enter West Wave has been factored in. “It will only ever be one direction,” says Dawson. “They’re working on making sure the water only goes out and doesn’t come back in.” But that doesn’t help the thousands of people who’d like to return to West Wave to soak in the spa while their kids splash about in the lazy river, or swim some laps then sweat it out in the sauna.

When West Wave’s carpark flooded on January 27, people were still driving in, hoping for a Friday evening swim. The following day, they also showed up at the doors, knocking, hoping to get in. Clarke was there, mopping up and assessing the damage, and was forced to wave them away. “We were like, ‘No, we’re closed.’ They were like, ‘Why?'” They couldn’t see what the problem was because all the flooding happened underground.

She gets the frustration – swimming can be addictive, and there’s nowhere else to go unless you fancy a 20-minute drive. “People get very passionate about their swimming.”

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