Edward Rooney

Edward Rooney is the Regional News Editor at NZME. News Service.

Photo recall: Dams emptied and rumours spread in the other big dry

In 1994, the Parnell Seawater Baths closed at the end of summer for maintenance. But clear blue skies rolled on, taking Auckland into a severe drought

Back then the drought was called a one-in-100-year event. Photo / NZ Herald. Picture Research / Emma Land.
Back then the drought was called a one-in-100-year event. Photo / NZ Herald. Picture Research / Emma Land.

Our long dry summer is jogging a few memories about the last great parched period in Auckland - 1994.

Back then it was called a one-in-100-year drought. As water conservation measures were rolled out, water provider Watercare Services scrambled a drought management team together to find answers to what had happened and to suggest solutions to stop it happening again.

Team leader Mark Bourne, 50, is still with Watercare and was amused to be called this week.

"It's quite humorous to be asked about it. I guess it shows I've been here a little while."

Bourne says 1994 was a much different situation from the present drought. "Back then it was just the Auckland and Northland region. This time it's right through the North Island. And this time we have had this amazing summer. In 1994, the drought began in the winter months.

"It was a reasonably mild winter and, while it still rained, there was nothing like the usual rainfall. At that stage, Auckland's water supply was reliant on five dams in the Hunua Ranges, four dams in the Waitakere Ranges and one modest source of underground water at Onehunga. We really relied on the winter rains to fill the dams up."

Going into the summer period, the dam system was about 70 per cent full. "And then we had a great summer," Bourne says, "not to the extent we have had this time, but still it continued to be a dry summer and the dams bottomed out at about 29 per cent at the start of the next winter."

There are no such concerns now, he says. "This time around we had a wet winter and we started summer about 99 per cent full."

After the crisis of 1994, a pipeline was built to connect Auckland with the Waikato River. Bourne says it took about 18 months to get the resource consents, which allow the region to take up to 150 megalitres per day to cater for growth. The treatment plant was recently upgraded to start taking 125,000.

Bourne remembers 1994 as a time of very long working days.

"We did exceedingly long hours. There was a high level of disbelief that the Auckland region was in a drought. People didn't notice that it hadn't rained much, but when it did rain, there was very little of it."

Part of the disbelief was manifested in rumours. One persistent rumour was that Watercare had emptied one or more of the major dams for maintenance and was then caught out by a dry spell. "Like all good rumours there was a grain of truth," Bourne says. "There were reports we emptied the Nihotupu auxiliary dam but that dam was built almost a 100 years ago and was decommissioned when the lower dam was built because it was unsafe. Dams are always being upgraded and we were doing an upgrade on the Hays Creek dam, which had been transferred to us from the old Papakura District Council, but that held less than 1 per cent of our capacity."

Like some of Auckland's water, Bourne comes from the Waikato. He's been with Watercare for 24 years, now as wastewater operations manager. He says his children are Aucklanders but he's retained his love of the Chiefs, which makes it interesting at home on local derby days.

- Herald on Sunday

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