The rising cost of our fresh water

By Kathryn Powley, Lynley Bilby

Auckland's residential water bills arrive monthly and seem bigger than ever - and the pain is slowly spreading nationwide. More city and district councils are setting in place new water-metering regimes that, for many families, make it too expensive to grow a veggie garden or fill a paddling pool.

Yvonne Dabb has considered giving up her garden since her water bills sky-rocketed. Photo / Doug Sherring
Yvonne Dabb has considered giving up her garden since her water bills sky-rocketed. Photo / Doug Sherring

Despite one of the driest months in decades, the flowers and veges are thriving on avid gardener Yvonne Dabb's 1230sqm property. Yvonne has a guilty conscience though. The 77-year-old grandmother, president of the Blockhouse Bay Garden Club, is fretting about the amount of water she has been pouring on to her climbing beans, shrubs, sunflowers and dahlias.

After 30 years in this house she has come to love its garden, but this summer the shine hasworn off and she is even thinking of giving it up. That's because this summer, for the first time, the water bills arrive monthly - and when they do, Yvonne's guilt sets in.

Yvonne and Graeme Dabb's January bill from Watercare was a "horrifying" $126.83 compared with the usual $40 or so of recent months. Last January's invoice was $141.29, but that covered three months. That change to monthly billing helps disguise a big increase for many Aucklanders: council-owned Watercare has increased charges for drinking water and wastewater across most of the new SuperCity.

It's hardly surprising, then, that Yvonne groans when her bills arrive. She has taken up what you might call "extreme recycling".

"I try to use the water twice," she says, smiling. Barely a drop comes out of a tap that doesn't end up on the garden. The four loads of washing she does each week provide about 480 litres of grey water, all of which she lugs outside. She gets another 24 litres a day from a basin catching rinse water in the kitchen sink.

She used to save the cold water that ran to waste while waiting for hot water to come through the pipes, but she is getting too old for that, she says. The Dabbs have two 1000L plastic tanks collecting rainwater from the roof. They installed them during the water crisis of 1994, when Aucklanders put bricks in their cisterns and used laundry water to flush as the dams ran low.

Yet, despite all that hard work, Yvonne has to use some tap water on her garden and her water bill for January was disheartening. There's no question, she has used more water, but she is nonetheless sure they're paying more than before.


Auckland is one of only five local councils that bill home-owners according to the amount of water they use. The others are Whangarei, Tauranga, Nelson and Tasman. A further 10 councils meter homes across parts of their jurisdictions. The remaining 52 territorial authorities include water as a fixed portion of home-owners' rates bills.

In Wellington, the regional council collects the water and provides it in bulk to four city councils.The capital's council communications manager, Richard MacLean, says there are no immediate plans to introduce meters in homes. "There's a lot of water to go under the bridge before that happens."

Murray Gibb, chief executive of the Water NZ association, says: "New Zealand is very noteworthy in that metering and volumetrically charging for water services is the exception rather than the rule."

He argues that metering improves public awareness of water consumption, particularly over summer. Typically, people in non-metered areas use double the amount of water as those in metered areas.

"On environmental, economic and social equity grounds the case for metering and volumetric charging is compelling," Gibb adds.

Central Otago has just introduced partial metering, in the hope of reducing the whopping 4000 litres of water its resident use each day during the peak summer months.

The non-metered people of Waikanae use 700 litres per day. That, combined with ongoing water shortages, has forced Kapiti Coast District to install meters, although it will not begin charging until July 2014.

Metered Aucklanders, by comparison, use just 175 litres of water per person. In part, that is probably an outcome of higher-density housing, with fewer vege gardens to water. But largely, it's because Aucklanders know they pay for every litre of water they rundown the drain.

Watercare's drinking water charges rose by 3.3 per cent to $1.343 per 1000 litres last year; its wastewater charges increased by 4.5 per cent the previous year.

People in the North Shore, Waitakere, Rodney and Franklin previously paid for their wastewater with their rates. On the North Shore, the number of toilets in a home was one factor in calculating the annual cost. Auckland City residents paid for wastewater with their water bills and that model has been adopted across the entire SuperCity.

Watercare says that for every 100 litres of clean water we buy, on average we send 78.5 litres down the drain. The other 21.5 litres is consumed or used outside. So, since July, WaterCare has imposed a wastewater charge of $2.28 per 1000 litres, plus a fixed charge of $190 a year.

That means Dabb is paying twice for all that recycled water she uses on her garden - something, she says, "really gets my goat".

At North Shore Budget Service, Sue Deason says her clients are cutting back on school expenses, clothes and presents, just to pay for that basic and seemingly abundant component of civilised living, fresh water. "We're having to set aside at least double the amount of money for the cost of families' water bills," she says.

Familes need to set aside a minimum of $10 a week for their water bill, she observes, which is twice the cost it was this time last year.

The Watercare waste water calculator is far from equitable, she claims. "It's still a very blunt tool."

Watercare Services received 765 complaints after the billing change, the Herald reports. Customers were unhappy about being moved from paying a fixed charge for wastewater, to paying $190 plus 78.5 per cent of the metered use of freshwater. The company was forced to temporarily boost staffing at its call centre to deal with the changes.

But although many people may have been hit in the pocket, Watercare says charges would have gone up far more if it wasn't for the integration of the seven Auckland councils' water utilities into one.

Legally, Watercare is not allowed to make a profit and pays no dividend to Auckland Council. Instead, every dollar goes back into the upkeep and construction of the Super-City's water operation.

So why does something that falls from the sky cost so much?

It's all about infrastructure. To get 119 billion litres of drinking water to 1.4 million business and residential customers living in 450,000 households you need 9000km of pipes, 20 plants, 149 reservoirs, 108 pump stations, 11 dams, 26 bores and four rivers, including the Waikato. Watercare's assets are valued at $7.8 billion.

Over the next 10 years, the company plans to spend about $2.27 billion on capital works to maintain and improve the existing water network. Top of the list is the Hunua No 4 pipeline which at $350 million will provide for population growth and improve security of supply to Central Auckland and the North Shore.

A North Harbour water main duplication is costing $265m, and the Huia and Waikato treatment plants will be upgraded. Watercare is spending $1.1 billion on three new "interceptors" to cope with growth and replace ageing wastewater infrastructure.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers benchmarking report compares Watercare's financial performance with similar-sized water companies in Australia and the UK. It shows Watercare charges significantly less than Australian providers, and marginally less than those in Britain. A medium-sized Auckland household using 200,000 litres of water a year would pay only half what their cousins across the Tasman are charged.

Further more, PricewaterhouseCoopers compared Watercare's charges with the previous seven Auckland local water companies and found Watercare was cheaper across the board.

So, like any decent business, Watercare is proud of its achievements. "Since integration in November 2010, Watercare has delivered over $104m of savings," says Watercare spokesman Dan Wrigley. "This meant the retail price of water was able to be cut by an average of 15 per cent. Without these savings, the cost of drinking water would have been 40 per cent higher in 2012."


Why the discrepancy, then, between Watercare's proud boasts, and a public perception that Aucklanders are paying more for less?

First, it's about transparency and answering to the ratepayers who own the company. Two months ago, the Herald on Sunday revealed that Auditor-General Lyn Provost had blasted Watercare and Auckland Transport, saying their boards should be sacked if they didn't show improved accountability.

"The biggest problem," says councillor Cathy Casey, "is the council-controlled organisations think their boards are their bosses, not us." Secondly, it's about the perception of a big-spending, big-noting, bullying corporate. Watercare is the fifth largest company in New Zealand by asset value, with approximately $7.8 billion in assets. Cameron Brewer, who chairs Auckland Council's business advisory panel, has obtained figures showing Watercare's legal costs rose from $2.68m in 2011 to $3.58m last year. "Watercare used 22 different legal firms in the past year," he says, "and has spent on average $10,000 a day on legal bills alone."

Much of that increased legal bill was incurred in obtaining resource consents at the Environment Court to push through big infrastructure projects, sometimes against the will of local residents. Watercare ran up $655,000 in legal bills on the Hunua No 4 watermain project alone.

And thirdly, the conflicting perceptions are caused by the opacity of the residential billing regime, making it hard for customers to compare one year's charges with the next.

The shift to monthly billing, combined with one of the driest summers on record, has made it hard for people to seewhether they're paying more or less for each glass of water. "The promised savings have been hard to see for most householders," Brewer says.

No doubt Yvonne Dabb's bill pales in comparison with those that drop into mailboxes of sprawling properties in Auckland's "leafy suburbs", such as Brewer's Orakei ward - but
it's big enough to make Dabb consider abandoning her garden.

Fortunately, husband Graeme won't hear of it. "You can't let your garden die," he tells her. "It means so much to you."

And so Dabb will guiltily continue resorting to the hose and sprinkler to water her veges, when the grey water and rainwater tanks run dry.


Quick water tips

1. Re-use dishwater: Pour washing-up water over your flower beds - it will help eliminate garden pests.

2. Install a dual-flush toilet cistern: Or, if it's yellow ...

3. Repair perished washers Dripping taps can waste up to 90L of water per week.

4. Turn off the tap: You waste up to 5L of water by leaving the tap running when brushing your teeth.

5. Grow your lawn longer: It will stay greener and need less water than close-mown lawns.

6. Fishy fertiliser: Use old fishtank water on your plants. It is full of nutritious phosphorus and nitrogen.

7. Apply good mulch around trees: Up to 73% of garden water evaporates before plants absorb it.

Click here for more tips.


Counting the cost

Fresh water: $1.343/kL
Wastewater: $2.281/kL
(Electricity not included)

47c for a 150L top-loader washer

20c for a 60L front-loader washer

38c to half-fill a bath (120L)

22-50c for an 8-minute shower

5c to wash a sink full of dishes

6c for a 20L dishwasher cycle

$1.25 to water garden for 30mins (400L)

- Herald on Sunday

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