Residents of Auckland's wealthiest suburbs are having a "s***" fight with council officials and politicians over sewage spills on their beaches.
In the country's most expensive suburb of Herne Bay, with an average house price of $2.6 million, and neighbouring St Marys Bay, where the average house costs $2.2m, a battle is raging over the best way to fix sewage overflows into the Waitemata Harbour.
A little further around the harbour, parts of Pt Chevalier Beach were spotted with what was thought to be toilet paper at the high tide mark last week. The council blamed recent rain entering and overwhelming the wastewater system for debris at the beach.
Auckland Mayor Robbie fought to stop our sewage being dumped at Browns Island
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This is nothing new. A Herald investigation last year found waste flows from 41 points around the inner city suburbs almost every time it rains. One million cubic metres of wastewater and diluted sewage - the equivalent of 400 Olympic swimming pools - is pouring into the harbour each year.
For months, the resident associations of Herne Bay and St Marys Bay have been fighting council plans for a $44m water quality improvement project at St Marys Bay.
They say the project is based on an outmoded practice and sewage overflows will still occur at least 20 times a year to an outfall west of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
"Auckland Mayor Robbie fought to stop our sewage being dumped at Browns Island. Aucklanders still don't want sewage in their harbour. This proposed project is not the answer. The answer is separation," Stop Auckland Sewage Overflows Coalition spokesmen David Abbott and Dirk Hudig say.
The pair have latched onto a recent report done for the council by consultants that shows stormwater could be separated into a new pipe for all of St Marys Bay and Herne Bay for about the same cost of the St Mary Bays water improvement project.
This would stop sewage overflows at St Marys Bay as well as at two reserves and three beaches in Herne Bay. It would also allow time for a gradual upgrade of the century-old wastewater pipes, they said.
"Why build a sewer system that discharges sewage into the harbour when we can build a better one that doesn't, at no greater cost," said Abbot, a retired judge, and Hudig, a retired merchant banker.
Mayor Phil Goff, who last year told the Herald Auckland "shouldn't have wastewater overflows polluting our harbour" and introduced a targeted rate this year to improve water quality, declined to comment.
Instead, councillor Penny Hulse, who chairs the council's environment and community committee, fronted on the "complex issue", saying regardless of what happens, the council still needs the St Marys Bay project.
The project involves building a 1.8m diameter storage tunnel for wastewater and stormwater under the St Marys Bay cliff to Pt Erin where it will be pumped to a larger main sewer system. When the tunnel exceeds capacity, it will overflow into the harbour.
Hulse said advice from the council's stormwater division, Healthy Waters, is full separation is a much bigger job than is possibly being portrayed and cause huge disruption.
Healthy Waters general manager Craig McIlroy said the preferred $44m project would not only improve the water quality at St Marys Bay and nearby Masefield Beach in Herne Bay, but work in conjunction with other major long-term projects.
Hulse questioned whether full separation was a silver bullet, saying the former North Shore City Council went down that path spending huge sums of money "and we have got faeces on Takapuna Beach".
She said the council still needed to have a big discussion on what is known as the "three waters" debate, that is combining drinking water, wastewater and stormwater under one umbrella.
At the moment, the council-controlled organisation Watercare looks after drinking water and wastewater under a user-pays model and council's Healthy Waters is responsible for stormwater paid out of rates.
Watercare has expressed concerns about stormwater overwhelming its wastewater system and, where practical, would like to see more separation.
Healthy Waters has been reluctant to support separation, arguing it does not make economic or social sense for wholesale separation of 16,000 homes on the old combined pipes.
Hulse said it was good to have some tension between the two water bodies; the more pragmatic solutions from Healthy Waters versus the more money in pipes solutions from Watercare.
She said the Herne Bay and St Marys Bay case highlighted the wider issue to find the best solutions to improve the city's water quality.