Caption: Chris Dolley

The last fortnight has thrown into sharp relief the value of water.

When we have lots of it - falling from the sky like it did last week, or flowing from our taps - we don't spend much time thinking about it. When our water is under threat, we're lost.

In August of this year, Hawke's Bay Regional Council advised us that they would stop issuing consents to draw water from the Heretaunga Aquifer.

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They'd had robust scientific advice that the amount of water already consented for was at the outer limit of what is environmentally sustainable. Adding to the concern was that consent holders had permission to take significantly more than was being currently used.

For some context, household water accounts for 24 per cent of the consented take from our aquifer. Irrigation take about 51 per cent, industry around 22 per cent, commercial water bottlers 2 per cent, and 1 per cent falls into the category of "other uses".

Here at Napier City Council, our consent to take our portion of the water from the aquifer relies on us submitting and executing a Water Conservation Strategy. This has been a priority of ours this year, and we're now at the stage where we are able to finalise the details of that strategy with the HBRC team.

Within the strategy, council will be addressing water demand management through three mechanisms: operations and maintenance practices, asset management practices and consumer behavioural changes.

The third of those is where our residents come in.

We already understand some of the consumer behaviour here in Napier – unlike many other centres around New Zealand, most of our water isn't metered, so it can be tempting to use it generously and without restriction. That's completely understandable, but it's time to rethink those habits.

No lasting change can come about without clear and compelling public education. It's Murphy's Law that we had a great 14-week education campaign through print, radio, social media and video, ready to launch on December 4 - the same day that we saw a devastating overnight drop in our water reservoirs and had to implement instant Level 4 restrictions in order to recover our levels.

Level 4 restrictions exist for the very situation we found ourselves in on December 4 – that is, unusually high demand, or an emergency situation such as a burst pipe.

It's not a requirement to move systematically through levels one to three, before arriving at four – we choose the level of the restriction based on the urgency of the situation. In this particular situation, we had no choice but to hit the highest gear.

However, we understand that without sufficient public education, it must have come as a huge shock to our residents that here we were, in a bit of a bind, calling on the public to help.

We had committed to developing and implementing a public education programme by December 2017, in concert with Hastings District Council, ready for "peak water" in late January and February. "Peak water" doesn't usually arrive in the first weekend of summer.
But we were absolutely blown away the response.

Our internal "real time" data measurements show that our per person per day usage moved from a peak of 642 litres on the Sunday to an impressive 297 litres on the Tuesday, 24 hours after our messaging had gone out that it was crunch-time.

For us to succeed in fulfilling our consent requirements to conserve water, we are totally reliant on participation from the community. We are all in this together.

An important element of our education campaign is feedback to the community on how we are going with our water use. Running a city water supply can be really complicated, which is why we are boiling it down to a simple message - you will see our bucket icon, demonstrating how close we are getting to our average usage target of 400 litres per person per day – appearing from this week onwards.

This collateral will provide a feedback loop to residents on how well we are conserving this precious resource.

This is smart economics, too. Managing peak demand, rather than going for broke with the hoses and sprinklers, will defer expensive capital upgrades that would really only be required for a couple of very warm weeks each year.

Make no bones about it - council is a big water user too. We are working as hard as you are to improve our efficiency. We have reviewed irrigation schedules for our parks and gardens, we have reduced operating hours for our fountains and we are undertaking water use efficiency studies at some of our major sites.

We also have budget approved for the installation of district meter zones within our water supply network so we are better informed about where our water is being used.

The Heretaunga Aquifer was once thought of as an almost limitless water supply. We know now that is not the case.

We are all capable of doing whatever we can to ensure its future.

Chris Dolley is the Napier City Council's manager asset strategy. All opinions are the writer's and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.