There is a theory that Far Northerners have generally, so far, not been conserving water with any great enthusiasm, or in Kaitaia's case any enthusiasm at all, because of building resentment against the Far North District Council.

There is no logic to that. Those who have not been listening are potentially making the situation even more dire, for themselves and everyone else, but it is entirely understandable. The council's credibility has been badly eroded over recent weeks, and if there is a widespread attitude of 'stuff the council,' and there is another, less polite version, it only has itself to blame.

Chief executive Shaun Clarke was not exaggerating when he said last week that there was no shortage of energy on the council's part in terms of responding to what really is becoming a crisis, but he was off the mark when he insisted that a "huge effort" was being made to raise awareness of the need to conserve water in Kaikohe and Kaitaia.

That might have been true in Kaikohe, but in Kaitaia the communication has been abysmal. That improved markedly late last week, with the dissemination of leaflets and use of the NZTA's electronic sign on the town's southern boundary, but if it's now not too little it is much too late.

Advertisement

Until Friday the council appeared to have relied upon the Northland Age, and, somewhat belatedly, Facebook to raise awareness of the situation in Kaitaia. Ironically, the Northland Age knew very little of what was being done, and there is plenty, until last week, when it received a couple of leaked documents.

The district council, its regional counterpart, Civil Defence Emergency Management and others really are doing a great deal of work in preparing for what appears to be a looming disaster. At best Kaikohe, and Kaitaia isn't far behind, can hope for an emergency supply of water that will allow for the most basic of needs. But while one can't blame the council for the weather, its response is another story.

In the case of Kaitaia, the council has spent 10 years and millions of dollars achieving very little in terms of developing what in 2010 was touted as an accessible, affordable, sustainable source of water. So far it has sunk a test bore and acquired a consent to take all the water the town needs over a dry summer, and more, from the aquifer at Sweetwater.

The council now says it will be drawing that water before the end of autumn next year. At worst, next summer will be the last that sees a crisis of this nature. Hallelujah.

The council can also be criticised for its specific response to this emergency, however. In Kaitaia's case it reacted far too slowly to what everyone from locals to hydrologists and forecasters were warning many months ago, that what the town is now enduring was increasingly likely to come to pass.

What did it do? Nothing, publicly at least, until January 16, when it imposed Level 3 restrictions. Not Level 1 or 2, but starting at 3. From zero restrictions to Level 3 alone suggests that it should have done something much earlier than mid-January.

Then, dags having finally rattled, its attempts to make the community aware of the situation, and of the restrictions on water use, were little more than derisory. It has done a much better job since late last week, but the horse was well on the way to bolting by then.

In fairness to the council, some who had been made very aware of the ban on sprinklers, hoses and irrigation systems, water-blasting and the washing of cars and boats, as of January 16, chose to ignore their duty to comply. The worst known offenders were the owners of Kaitaia's two car wash establishments. One was happy to comply with the restriction, according to the council, but did so only briefly. When his customers started abandoning him in droves in favour of the opposition, where they could still wash their cars, he turned his system back on.

Advertisement

That continued well into last week. Finally, late on Thursday morning, precisely three weeks after the Level 3 restrictions were imposed, both machines were shut down.

Is it really any wonder that some people who were aware of the restriction weren't busting their gut to conserve water? In a town where pensioners have been lugging water from their washing machines in a losing battle to keep their modest vegetable gardens going, in some cases since well before January 16, is it reasonable to expect widespread compliance when car washes in the main street are pumping water, multiple metres every day, down the drain?

And why did it take the council so long to notice what was happening? Some council staff live in Kaitaia, and it's the home town of four elected members, not one of whom, it seems, saw anything.

An automated car wash reportedly uses hundreds of litres of water for every vehicle it cleans. And until midday on Thursday, Kaitaia's had been doing a roaring trade. Kaitaia would have been well on the way to achieving the 25 per cent reduction in consumption that the NRC demanded of the FNDC as of January 31, and which would have negated the need for a Level 4 restriction, simply by shutting down those two machines.

It would also help significantly if the council made much quicker progress on fixing the "up to 500 requests for service," namely to fix water leaks, that were referred to in the January 31 minutes of the FNDC's Water Shortage Management Committee. Comfortingly (not!) the minutes added that there was no need to "call in Leak Detection Agency just yet." Really? Even with the extra resources that the minutes said were going into that problem, when does the committee plan to hit the panic button?

Some of the more alarming contents of those minutes were explained, rationally and reasonably, by the council to the writer last week, but not all. Fifteen days after Level 3 restrictions were imposed in Kaitaia, for example, reference was made to contacting Juken NZ to "seek feedback" on how it planned to reduce its water use. The Northland Age suspects that that had already been done — perhaps, like Kaitaia, the committee has been left a little out of the loop — but, again 15 days after restrictions were imposed, the minutes referred to working with a private bore owner north of Kaitaia regarding a resource consent to take water from there, after testing both the bore and the water.

The greatest failure, without doubt, has been in terms of communication. For far, far too long the council apparently did nothing, or at least nothing visible, to address a clearly looming water crisis in Kaitaia, or to warn the town that the situation was becoming serious. Then, having pulled finger, it failed to adequately inform the town regarding what was being done and what its residents needed to do.

And while it might claim, not without justification, to have been beavering away behind the scenes, it is only three weeks ago that sources within the council were telling the writer that the Awanui River was actually in pretty good shape, and that very substantial quantities of water continued to flow into Rangaunu Harbour.

That is unconfirmed, however. Perhaps it will be made official in the next leaked document.