A rare sense of urgency has taken hold at the Far North District Council over Kaitaia's water supply, and not before time. For the thick end of a decade it dithered and dallied, spending millions of dollars and producing not one drop of water.
Now, with the town facing what the council describes as potentially unprecedented shortages, it says it is taking steps to "manage" the situation before we reach the worst case scenario. That will be that the town actually runs dry. That the Awanui River will simply have no water to give.
What the council will do then one can only guess. Import water — from where? — in tankers that it will park on street corners so people can fill plastic bottles?
The council is interpreting long-range weather forecasts as suggesting that there might not be significant rainfall until May. There is some room for debate over that, but the fact is that last year was significantly drier than usual, and this summer is following suit. Every man and his dog has been saying since last winter that this summer was going to be a difficult one. The council, though, appears to have been taken by surprise.
So once again Kaitaia has water restrictions, this time even banning hand-held hoses, but this time that might not be enough. This time inconvenience might become a real crisis. The time for urgency was years ago, not now, when it might well be too late.
Kaitaia's water has been a shambles. Since the late Cr Dennis Bowman announced that a bore was to be sunk into the aquifer at Sweetwater, from where water would be piped to the reservoir, a process that he confidently predicted would be completed by Christmas that year, what exactly has been achieved? The council has acquired a consent to take 5000 cubic metres of water a day, much more than the town uses, from the aquifer, and has sunk a test bore, which, as far as this newspaper was ever able to establish, worked quite well for some minutes before pressure fell and it began pumping sand. Not to mention that private bores within a significant area around the site went dry.
Now we're told that a contract has been let for the design of a bore head, a pipeline and connection at the reservoir. Yippee. If, as seemed to be the case when the test bore was activated, the chosen site cannot produce the water needed, and from a layman's point of view it would seem unrealistic to expect a solitary bore to produce that quantity, and if it can't function without putting surrounding bores out of action, the council has another problem.
The apparent fact that the test bore had such a dire effect on surrounding bores casts the consent to supply the town from that source into significant doubt. Recent revelations from the Northland Regional Council that the data it had relied upon in considering applications to take vast quantities of water from the aquifer further north were not reliable must add to doubt that a Sweetwater bore will ever prove to be a goer.
Now, however, there is talk of the council looking for another bore site, one that is closer to Kaitaia, and presumably cheaper. Great. We all want the best value for money. But doesn't that mean starting again from scratch? Has all this time and money spent on Sweetwater been wasted? And if the council is going to look for another site, how long will it take to find one?
The council, which has apparently been beavering away in the background without ever saying anything publicly, now says Kaitaia can expect to be drinking aquifer water within 12 to 15 months. That's autumn 2021. Anyone want to open a book? It's still negotiating to buy the land where it plans to sink its bore/s. Predicting that water will actually begin to flow within a year and maybe a few months seems to be designed to placate a town that should have run out of patience years ago as opposed to a realistic goal given the stunning lack of progress so far.
This crisis has, after all, survived two mayors, a heap of councillors (only two of the incumbents have been there from the start), two chief executives, and a swag of engineers and senior management. Whether it is the elected members or staff who are at fault here matters only inasmuch as we, who might well be facing a total lack of water, only have control over the former. And it's a bit late to start making wholesale changes there.
We don't have another election until 2022, and not one of last year's 11 mayoral candidates mentioned water supplies once within the writer's hearing. Nor did the other candidates. If the issue is now weighing heavy on elected members' minds, it wasn't three months ago.
Meanwhile questions from the Northland Age have largely gone unanswered for years. We have asked what use might be made of the Te Maire Ave bore, installed by the Kaitaia Borough Council well over 30 years ago. It seems that the water is non-potable, and there might also be issues with quantity and pressure. Even so, could that water be used by those who don't need a potable standard, like Juken NZ? From memory that company uses about 20 per cent of Kaitaia's water, currently taken from the rapidly dwindling river.
What do the mills do when the river runs dry?
What's the real story about the Kauri dam, which once provided every drop of Kaitaia's water? Algal problems, apparently, make it unfit for human consumption. Except when it has been needed to temporarily augment the supply from the river. If the water's as bad as the council has long said it is, how come it's fit for human consumption sometimes? And is it beyond 21st century technology to fix the algal problem?
Obviously it has been beyond the council's ability to do so, not to mention its inability to resolve dam access issues that have cost a fortune for no benefit.
And why is it that 30 per cent of the water taken from the river is still disappearing? That figure hasn't changed for years, despite council claims that it is investigating. Thirty per cent is a huge amount of water, and there would seem to be only two places where it could be going. Either it's leaking into the ground — surely even the council would have noticed a geyser — or it's being taken by people who aren't paying for it.
Either way, all efforts to find that water so far have failed. Now the council says it has installed zonal metres around the town to find it. Whether that provides answers remains to be seen, but the fact is that the council has been aware of the loss for many years, and has done nothing effective.
We keep hearing that the council wants to make the Far North the best place it can be in which to live and work, and to visit. We have also been invited from time to time to contribute to a process aimed at shaping this community over the next goodness knows how many years. The writer would like to know what Kaitaia is going to look like tomorrow, and the day after. He wants to know how we are going to get by without a reticulated water supply, which, when it goes, will take the sewerage system with it. Don't fret about not watering your garden or washing your car. How are you going to feel when you can't flush the toilet?
At the moment Kaitaia has no real choice but to pray that this time the council will actually do something, contrary to all past experience, and it must. The rain that will eventually come won't placate this newspaper. We have been told that we will have water in autumn next year. If it doesn't arrive, we will expect heads to roll.