Warning signs have been put up at Haruru Falls urging people not to swim or collect shellfish in the Waitangi River after a sewage spill caused by a faulty pump.
The volume of effluent involved is not known but the Far North District Council initially said the overflow occurred for short periods — possibly an hour a day — while the pump station was at peak flow on Friday and Saturday two weeks ago.
That was later revised to between two and two and a half hours a day.
The Haruru business owner who raised the alarm, however, believed the spill started on Thursday and lasted around three hours each time.
Peter Ricketts, who owns Falls Motel and Waterfront Campground, said the overflow came from a manhole cover next to sewage holding tanks at the end of Old Wharf Rd, next to Waitangi River at the base of Haruru Falls.
Ricketts said he had been in Auckland for a few days so only discovered the leak at 7am on Saturday.
Effluent was ''pouring'' from the manhole and running into the river.
There was no mistaking it was sewage from the stench and ''bits of paper and all sorts'' floating in it.
He phoned the council's after-hours number and a contractor arrived about an hour later with a sucker truck. The truck pumped 10 loads of sewage from the tanks before the overflow stopped.
He didn't know how long it had been flowing before 7am and estimated it had continued for three hours after he raised the alarm.
An electrician working at his property told him sewage had been leaking for about three hours on Thursday as well.
''The council have no respect for the Waitangi River and must stop using it as a dump station,'' a frustrated Ricketts said.
The Northland District Health Board was notified of the spills, which occurred while contractors were working to repair a pump some distance from the spill site.
Medical officer of health Dr Catherine Jackson said the leaks were deemed to pose a low health risk because of the low volume and dilution by river water.
However, when water test results came through on Tuesday, they showed alert levels for E. coli and action levels for enterococci, as per recreational water quality guidelines.
E. coli and enterococci are types of faecal bacteria. "Alert level" means authorities need to step up water testing; "action level" means signs have to be put up and the public warned via the media.
Dr Jackson said it wasn't known if the elevated bacteria levels were due to existing contamination or the spill, but they suggested swimmers ran increased risk of stomach bugs.
Public Health Northland had requested that warning signs be put up at Haruru Falls and further water testing be carried out above and below the falls.
The Far North District Council was unable to respond to Advocate queries by edition time.
However, in a Facebook post to a Paihia community page, a council spokesman said the leak was due to a pump failure, with contractors on the scene quickly to fix the pump on Friday and Saturday.
''We deployed sucker trucks to relieve pressure on the system. Unfortunately, repairs coincided with peak flows and some sewage escaped through a manhole.''
Each leak lasted two to two and half hours. It was not possible to say exactly how much sewage escaped but it was not high volume.
The council already undertook regular preventative maintenance on pumps and would review its procedures to see if it could do more to prevent a recurrence.
Te Tii Marae and the recently formed Ko Waitangi Te Awa Trust have been contacted for comment.
The overflow was downstream of the intake for Paihia's water treatment plant, which is just above the waterfall.
The river empties into the Bay of Islands at Waitangi, one of Northland's premier tourist destinations. The river and estuary are also popular areas for shellfish gathering.
Sewage spills in the Waitangi River have been an ongoing problem over the years.
A particularly serious spill occurred in 2006 when a pipe ruptured and discharged more than 2 million litres of sewage on to pasture near the river. The company then contracted to monitor the system did not notice the automated alarm until 48 hours later.
That resulted in a 28-day closure of the river and estuary to shellfish collecting.