Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Fetid waterways left to rot in fight over growth

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Having beaten Labour to No 2 spot in Auckland Central at the 2014 general election, the Greens might have been smart to have included one of that electorate's highly polluted streams in its just announced "Swimmable Rivers" campaign hit list.

True, Auckland Council's planned $1 billion "central interceptor" sewer tunnel, from Western Springs to the Mangere Treatment Plant, will, by 2025, reduce, "by up to 80 per cent" the present frequent overflow of wastewater and sewage into the inner Waitemata Harbour via these fetid waterways. But even then we urban dwellers will continue to be guilty of what we denounce dairy farmers around the country of doing.

The council's drainage arm, Watercare, highlights more than a dozen "significant discharge locations" into the so-called "sparkling" Waitemata within the neighbourhood. That's where the sewers overflow into the natural waterways "more than 12 times per year, with an annual volume of greater than 10,000 cubic metres."

Indeed it's worse. Watercare admits there are "50 constructed points" in the old city's combined water and sewage system that discharge into waterways more than once a week. Indeed, "most now spill every time it rains."

This is hardly news to old residents around the area. We know which beaches it's dangerous to swim at, and where and when it's best not to breathe in too deeply as you walk by. But it does seem necessary to point it out to panicky government ministers who are trying to bully Auckland Council into building up and out, and shrugging their shoulders and saying let the market sort out the collateral damage.

If anyone in Government should appreciate the nuances, it should be Dr Nick Smith, who is not only Minister for Building and Housing, but Minister for the Environment as well. But his unquestioning support, for instance, for a 70-apartment complex in Herne Bay, which will inevitably add to harbour pollution, suggests the environment side of his brain is just not connected to the housing lobe.

In late April, local councillor and former chairman of the Auckland Regional Council Mike Lee wrote to Dr Smith asking him to revoke the fast track Special Housing Area designation he'd approved for the site occupied by the Gables pub on the corner of Kelmarna Ave and Jervois Rd. The developer proposed to replace the pub with three retail units and 70 apartments. Mr Lee warned the old sewage system couldn't cope.

Dr Smith wrote back claiming holding tanks under the building would avoid "any increased adverse impact on the Waitemata Harbour". He also rushed on to television to denounce Mr Lee as a nimby and a hypocrite.

Mr Lee wrote back pointing out that the discharge of raw sewage into the harbour "cannot be mitigated by vast holding tanks as you apparently think. Holding tanks for sewage under buildings are just not legal."

Last week, Dr Smith unveiled the Government's latest attempt to solve Auckland's housing crisis, a National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity, which will force local authorities to provide for "sufficient development capacity" in their planning documents. Prime Minister John Key and Dr Smith both warned that the Auckland Council's Unitary Plan, to be finalised later this year, will be expected to meet the yet-to-be-agreed policy statement requirements, or else!

National Policy Statements are rare encyclicals, allowed under the Resource Management Act, giving the government of the day the power to assert its will. Currently there are just four, two on electricity matters, the others on coastal policy and freshwater management.

As Minister for Conservation, Dr Smith seems to have forgotten the requirements of the policy statement on freshwater management in particular. In it, he, as minister, requires local authorities to recognise "the national significance of freshwater and Te Mana o te Wai - the mana of the water." It directs them to safeguard fresh water's life-supporting capacity and to "safeguard the health of people who come into contact with the water through recreation".

Yet wearing his ministerial housing hat, he seems to be ordering Auckland Council to ignore that policy statement and concentrate instead on his new housing development orders. No wonder the New Zealand Planning Institute is warning that good spatial planning "needs to be an integrated process..."

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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