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The BulletinJanuary 26, 2024

Wellington’s water woes may be getting worse


Already in level 2 restrictions, the capital could soon face tougher rules as water usage remains unsustainably high, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Wellingtonians warned level 3 could be around the corner

Wellington’s has had a rough go of it this week. If having one of its main streets described as “a third world shambles” by a failed candidate for the Auckland mayoralty wasn’t enough, residents now face the prospect of further restrictions on their water usage. RNZ reports that the region could move into level 3 restrictions within the next fortnight unless water usage is significantly reduced. Wellington City, Upper and Lower Hutt and Porirua are currently under level 2 water restrictions which ban household garden sprinklers and irrigation systems. Level 3 would ban all outdoor residential water use and ask households to reduce indoor water use. This level would also allow water regulator Taumata Arowai to declare a drinking water emergency, giving it “broad and flexible powers” to protect the supply of drinking water.

The staggering size of the problem

While you already know that the capital has a pipe problem, you may not know just how serious it is. As Stuff’s Ryan Anderson lays out in a recent explainer, the region is currently losing about 40% of its water supply – roughly the equivalent of 27 Olympic sized swimming pools – every day because of leaky pipes. In December, Wellington Water estimated there were more than 5000 leaks in its network, with leaks on private property – which the utility is unable, as a rule, to monitor or fix – believed to be a significant contributing factor. While many of those leaks will be mere dribbles, Dileepa Foneska at BusinessDesk (paywalled) writes that Wellington Water has identified 406 medium-priority leaks. “Medium-priority leaks are ones where ‘only’ 4-10 litres of water are being lost every minute.”

Who’s to blame?

As Wellingtonians stand by, emergency water tanks at the ready, their thoughts understandably turn to who to blame for the shambles. The Spinoff’s Wellington editor Joel MacManus has a guide to all the likely suspects, from El Niño weather systems to city councils who for decades took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to water. As far as action now, local government minister Simeon Brown last week demanded answers from mayor Tory Whanau. His letter cited part 10 of the Local Government Act, marking “the first step in the Crown’s ability to intervene”, writes Andrea Vance in The Post (paywalled). Whanau has failed to rise to the moment, Vance argues. She’s been all but “invisible” in recent weeks, Vance says, with a communication strategy “centred around her personal problems” rather than the crisis at hand.

Why water meters are such a hard sell

While fixing the leaks will take many years and millions of dollars, there’s one thing the council could do that experts say would make the situation a whole lot better. Bringing in water metering would allow leaks to be immediately identified, including those on private property. Further up the coast in Kāpiti, water has been metered since 2014. Within 18 months of meters being brought in, fixes to hundreds of leaks had led to a 90% decrease in water use. The problem: as then Kāpiti mayor Jenny Rowan found out, water meters tend to be political suicide. That’s why many stakeholders are advocating for a national water metering policy to save councillors from having to vote for an unpopular new system themselves.

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