Gathering dust in a corner of Mike McQuillan's office are a gold-painted plunger, roll of toilet paper and piece of pipe - an ironic take on an issue we like to keep out of sight and out of mind. As head of environmental and utility management at Auckland City Council, McQuillan's is one of the dirtiest, but expensive, jobs in the business.
He presides over a network of crumbling, leaky stormwater and sewage pipes and pumping stations. About 15 per cent of the city's ageing drains still combine sewage and stormwater. During heavy rain, stormwater floods the system causing wastewater to overflow. To prevent it spurting out through gully traps and manhole covers, hundreds of "designed overflow" points are built into the network - sending diluted sewage into streams and watercourses.
The council plans to spend $1.4 billion over 20 years on its stormwater and sewage networks but its drains are only part of the pollution picture.
The council's pipes feed into the trunk sewer network operated by Watercare, the regional water supply and wastewater wholesaler, which is jointly owned by the six local councils. Watercare's network is also in a sorry state and its 20-year capital spending programme includes another $1.4 billion on its sewer network. Work is getting under way on the $101 million Project Hobson, to replace the century-old sewer crossing of Hobson Bay.
The biggest project is the $465 million Project Waitemata, a new interceptor from central Auckland to the Mangere wastewater treatment plant.
Watercare plans to double its wholesale price to 91c per cubic litre by 2016 to pay for these works. But it may not end there. Its shareholders - the councils - would dearly love to siphon some of its profits to help pay for their drainage projects.
That's because the problem drains stretch well beyond Auckland City's boundaries. In the 1990s, North Shore awoke to the same embarrassment: sewage spills forcing the closure of its prized beaches after heavy rain. Over the next 20 years, the North Shore City Council plans to spend $552 million on wastewater and $251 million on stormwater. Its first priority is the replacement of the Rosedale treated sewage pipeline, with its outlet at Kennedy Pt extended further into the harbour.
Manukau City Council estimates the cost of replacement of its wastewater network at $400 million over 30 years, with additional work to extend services to growth areas such as Flat Bush. It is currently spending around $13 million on a treatment plant to reduce pollution at Kawakawa Bay and has nearly completed an upgrade of the Beachlands-Maraetai plant. Stormwater sore points include Otara Lake and industrial runoff into the Tamaki Estuary and Mangere inlet.
Auckland Regional Council monitoring has found high faecal contamination in the Warkworth town basin, the Kaipara Harbour and the Manukau.
But are the headache-inducing sums needed to fix the problem justified? Sewage spills pose a short-term threat to human health, which is why councils advise against swimming at harbour beaches within three days of significant rain.
Of longer-term environmental concern is the build-up of contaminants in the seabed spreading into shellfish and up the food chain. Auckland Regional Council monitoring has found that Auckland's urban streams and estuaries contain a disturbing cocktail of toxic nasties, including zinc, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and hydrocarbons. These persistent pollutants are carried in the runoff from roads, industry and buildings.
Motions Creek, Oakley Creek, Meola Creek and the Whau are among the worst affected. Motions and Meola have alert-level concentrations of lead, zinc and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (from motor vehicle exhausts, lubricants and industrial emissions).
Ten sites exceed environmental response trigger levels for zinc contamination, with the Whau Estuary the worst.
This could soon come back to bite us. Monitoring has found contaminant levels in shellfish tissues are generally low by international standards - but it depends where you get your shellfish. Mussels and oysters sampled in the Mangere inlet and Tamaki Estuary contain traces of pesticides, insecticides, PCBs and copper. Oysters tested in the Manukau Harbour contain copper levels considered high by international standards.
Although zinc and copper concentrations have fallen since 1998 in some of the worst-affected areas, the regional council says trace metal concentrations in estuaries in general are getting worse. This trend will take a heap of money to reverse, either through rates or water charges or options such as development levies.
Why this is raising a stink at the moment is the political fallout over Auckland City's use of profits from its water company, Metrowater, to fund its significantly increased stormwater programme. The dominant CityVision ticket on the council is split over leader Bruce Hucker's support for the coming year's 9.1 per cent hike in water bills.
That it's not just an Auckland City dilemma was highlighted by Thursday's Herald report on the wastewater bill facing East Tamaki sausage manufacturer Leonard's. It rose from $2366 to $45,000 - but only after Manukau Water reviewed its initial charge of $245,000.
Behind his desk at the Auckland City Council, Mike McQuillan is talking pipe sizes, in an attempt to explain how the line is drawn between work paid for by the council and by Metrowater.
"It was a decision when Metrowater was set up that stormwater would stay with the council and be rates-funded.
"There's a linkage between stormwater work which is land-based and rates which are land-based. Metrowater is a supply and takeaway service."
Clear as effluent then. The line becomes especially blurred when it comes to funding the separation of the combined pipes - which, McQuillan adds, "has a considerable effect on what ends up in the environment."
Broadly speaking, the multi-million-dollar effort to separate the council's pipes is Metrowater's job. When it was launched in 1998 it was asked to reduce wastewater pollution into the harbour by 50 per cent by 2005. That target was met, paid for through direct charges for water and wastewater.
But hundreds of overflow points remain. When plans were reviewed last year, the council opted for a target - scenario 3.5 - which would reduce wastewater overflows to one a year in the eastern beaches, two a year in the western bays and up to 12 a year at Pt Chevalier, along the Tamaki River and the Manukau northern foreshore.
The estimated cost: $751 million over 20 years, a 74 per cent increase on the current spend. A report said the impact on water charges would be modest: 1 per cent a year in years one to nine and 2.5 per cent in years 10 to 20.
Yet a few months later, Metrowater increased charges by 9.6 per cent and this year plans a 9.1 per cent hike. Mayor Dick Hubbard's explanation: "Between 2006-2007 it became apparent that some of the cost increase projections from Metrowater were understated. As this information has come to hand, projections have been revised ... "
But there's more to it than that. The council is charged with upgrading its separated stormwater system which carries rain runoff into the harbour and which, with infill development, is beyond capacity in many areas, causing flooding. Last year, it opted to spend $643 million over 20 years, a 21 per cent increase.
Funding for this comes largely from rates, although the council voted to more than double the contribution paid by levies on development (taking the bill to $3720 per household unit). It also decided to partly fund the programme from Metrowater user charges, thus avoiding rate increases.
Council finance committee chairman Vern Walsh says with both the council and Metrowater having a role in sewage separation, the council felt its water company could provide some of its surpluses for stormwater. Of $31 million the council spent on sewage separation this year; $11 million was funded by Metrowater. He says Metrowater proceeds (known to some as charitable payments, to others as dividends) are ringfenced for stormwater.
Using Watercare profits in the same way would be an appropriate return on the investment made by generations of ratepayers, says Walsh.
"Why shouldn't current ratepayers get a little bit back rather than pay more?"
How did it come to this? McQuillan's gold-plated plunger is wishful thinking - drains were notoriously underfunded for decades. As a young engineering graduate, he recalls cash-strapped governments of the 1970s and 1980s refusing to approve local government borrowing.
More recently, the muck has hit the fan. New legislation required councils to engage in long-term budget forecasting and allow for asset replacement. At the same time, cost rises for infrastructure works have far outstripped the inflation rate.
Then there's growth. Water and wastewater systems were historically designed for population densities of 30 people a hectare. With infill development and apartments, we're heading for densities more like 150/ha. In Auckland City, this triggered a marked rise in flooding in the last decade and forced the council's hand. McQuillan says stormwater funding basically tripled in a three- to four-year period.
Auckland City still has about 230 designed overflows sending diluted sewage into the harbour during heavy rain. Watercare's 2006 asset management plan reported 146 overflows in the past year from 31 of its 51 pumping stations.
Coxs Bay and Meola Reef, in the city's western bays, remain badly affected by overflows following heavy rain. Their catchments stretch as far as Eden Park and St Lukes - areas with combined networks and ageing pipes.
McQuillan says considerable progress has been made in the last decade with "well over 200 overflows eliminated," particularly in the Orakei Basin catchment. "For the last two summers we haven't had algal blooms there."
The current focus is on St Heliers Bay, with roads closed and households disrupted as hundreds of metres of new stormwater pipes are laid at either end of the bay.
The western suburbs clean up is a quantum leap in scale: Auckland City plans to spend well over $300 million with Watercare's bill on top.
Yet not all of the solution lies in huge spending. Zinc contamination is linked to galvanised iron for roofing and cladding, particularly in industrial buildings. Simply encouraging owners to paint, and developers to use alternative materials, can make a difference.
Regional council chairman Mike Lee is concerned that councils are spending millions on planning rather than action and are overly focused on big-ticket rather than low-budget approaches. "Cesspits being cleaned out regularly can make a huge environmental benefit."
Perhaps McQuillan could put his plunger to work after all.