Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: We have Waikato water - so let's use it

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After the Great Drought of 1994, politicians took steps to ensure Auckland would never run dry again.

A dry paddock on Baverstock Rd, Hamilton.  Photo / Christine Cornege
A dry paddock on Baverstock Rd, Hamilton. Photo / Christine Cornege

Six weeks without rain and we're all gasping for water and declaring ourselves in the midst of a drought. What a lot of drama queens. As one well-travelled colleague quipped to me, anywhere else, they'd be calling it summer.

To read that many of the 350 sports fields in Auckland Council's southern sports park region were at crisis point has me scratching my head. The manager, Malcolm Page, told the Weekend Herald that some were "brown, they're completely dead". He said the choice was between delaying the start of the winter sports season or letting the players wallow in mud.

But there was another solution, surely. That was to water the fields before they got to their present "concrete" state. It's not as though we Aucklanders are exactly short of it, even after a month or so without rain. Thanks to the big scare regional politicians got during the Great Drought of 1994, and the single-mindedness of Watercare Services under the leadership of Mark Ford, Auckland now has a giant faucet connected straight to the mighty Waikato River.

It guarantees we have plenty of water to drink, to bathe in, and to water our gardens and sports fields, even in a mini-drought.

In 1994, a year-long drought in the main catchment areas left Aucklanders with just five weeks of reserve water supplies in the main Hunua Ranges dams and a gaggle of finger-pointing politicians. Hosing was banned. Papers advised readers how to insert a brick in the toilet cisterns to help conserve water. There was serious talk of installing emergency water standpipes in suburban streets. Then, the day before legislation was to be rushed through Parliament permitting an emergency pipeline from the Waikato River through Mercer to the Ardmore filter station, the rains finally came.

Chastened politicians conceded the growing metropolis needed to urgently expand its water storage resources, and resolved to build a system that would provide an unrestricted flow in any conditions up to the extreme of a one-in-200 drought, rather than the existing one in 50-year ceiling that had all but failed.

A total of 96 potential sources of additional water were identified and subjected to feasibility studies and environmental reports. Every possibility was canvassed, even a proposal to tow ice floes up from Antarctica. At $8 a cubic metre, the iceberg option quickly melted away.

As a freelance writer at the time, I was hired to plough through the mountains of reports and prepare a summary of each option for a public discussion document. From the dam in the Woodhill Forest, to the proposals to tap into aquifers under assorted volcanic cones, they all had one major drawback. They all depended on the same local rainfall that had just failed us. In addition, none provided the volumes of water future Auckland would require, either individually or together. Except, that is, for one. The Waikato River, flowing conveniently past our back door.

The thought of drinking water from a river that acted as both water source and drain for Hamilton, Huntly and other assorted towns before reaching the proposed Tuakau inlet wasn't instantly appealing. But there was no other choice. And when you checked the facts about the so-called pristine supplies from the Waitakere Ranges and Hunuas, that raw water wasn't so healthy either. The state-of-art membrane filtration system being proposed by Watercare guaranteed town supply water equal to that of any city in the world.

Not every one supported it. The Greens picketed, preferring we soaped up and stood outside waiting for a passing rain cloud. Out west in the Eco-city of Waitakere, there was much breast beating that continued up until the Waikato came on stream in mid-winter 2002. The folk of Rodney County and North Shore City were suspicious as well.

All three councils passed motions on the eve of the Waikato water coming on stream, demanding Watercare Services supply their drinking water on a "best raw water first" basis. Waitakere City wasted ratepayers' cash on propaganda brochures proclaiming "only Waitakere water is good enough for Waitakere people", reassuring them that they would not be drinking the Waikato water but water "drawn from the pristine rainwater lakes in the beautiful Waitakere Ranges". It forgot to mention that these pristine lakes had been closed for four months in 2000 because algal bloom had left people across the region gagging from the resultant musty-smelling and tasting water.

It was all scare tactics because at the time Watercare had no facility to pump water west uphill into Waitakere City anyway. Subsequently, a pumping station was built at New Lynn, which is just as well for the west. Without it, and Waikato water, Westies would have run out of water this summer.

Initially, the Waikato drew about 50 million litres a day, less than 10 per cent of Auckland's needs.

Since then, the plant has been expanded, and draw-off has risen first to 90 million litres daily, and recently up to 125 million litres, which is approaching the 150 million litres capacity of the pipe, and providing about 20 per cent of Auckland's needs. This year, an application goes before the Waikato Regional Council for permission to double the capacity and future-proof the system for an extra million people.

As infrastructure stories go, water supply is one area that Aucklanders can be proud they got right. Our public transport might stink and our roads clog, but at least with water, there's plenty of it. Which is where I came in. With so much of it, why are the sports fields as hard as concrete?

- NZ Herald

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