As early as 2013, Watercare forecast that sometime in the years 2021 to 2023, Auckland's demand for water could exceed its current existing supply channels to such a degree that could put the water supply to Auckland at risk.
Given that forecast, 77 potential sources of water were then investigated. The unanimous conclusion was that the simplest, most cost-effective source was to use the Waikato River from which Watercare had a treatment plant and pipeline already operating.
The existing pipeline could be expanded to take up to an additional 75 million litres per day (ml/d) on top of its current 150ml/d and this expansion was a straightforward engineering project.
Therefore, still in 2013, Watercare lodged a resource consent application with Waikato Regional Council. The consent requested that Auckland be able to draw a further 200ml/d from the Waikato river which allowed for 75ml/d via the existing pipeline, and a further 125ml/d for a new pipeline, likely needed around 2030.
Currently, Auckland uses about 400ml/d. It is important to note that 200ml/d represents only about 1 per cent of the river's flow. The water is taken a mere 15km from where the other 99 per cent of the river flows into the Tasman Sea. Reports at the time stated that the environmental impact was negligible.
This additional 75ml/d was planned to be in place by 2019 to give Auckland the resilience to have a secure water supply from the predicted shortfall in the 2021 to 2023 window.
History has proven that shortfall was in 2020 (due to increased climate volatility), but it was a reasonably accurate forecast nonetheless. And most, if not all, of the current water crisis could have been alleviated if Watercare had been allowed to draw the additional water into the existing pipeline.
But none of this planned expansion was possible. Watercare has not even been granted a hearing, let alone a consent. Now we are told Watercare is around 100th in the queue, after eight years. Why?
At least a hearing would have given Watercare an indication of whether a consent was possible or not, allowing it to investigate and plan for other options if need be.
The capital for this project has been planned and allocated for years. Watercare could not invest the many millions required for a project of this size without a resource consent. No one would even build a house without a consent.
And here's the rub. This meant that Watercare, through no fault of its own, had missed the "window" to meet the goal of drought resilience, which has happened a year earlier than predicted.
The very complex RMA process, local politics and the regionalisation involved have resulted in the use of "emergency" powers and ministerial intervention. This should not have happened and it is a sign of system failure.
The bad news is that it could be even worse next year. Dams are now around 55 per cent full at a time they should be over 80 per cent. A drier than normal winter/spring is forecast. We need to replenish before next summer. This is unlikely.
Of course, we may be very lucky and avoid the water crisis getting worse. Rainfall may be well above all the forecast predictions, but the chances that they may not are too high given where we are now. From a water infrastructure and supply risk perspective, that's not the point. You need to sit well above the curve.
We shouldn't be in this position, and if it's not this summer it will be another.
And there is a timing problem. By the end of August 2020 the current plant and pipeline can pump a further 25ml/d, i.e. a total of 175ml/d. But the construction timelines for the
next 50ml/d mean that this water will most likely not be ready until late this summer.
We have to learn how to do these things better. We cannot let such critical infrastructure projects linger in queues, given the same priority as individual farms and lifestyle blocks.
We should ask ourselves,"why are around 40 per cent of the consents issued for water use on the Waikato not used?"
Decreasing Auckland's social and economic engine, particularly "post" Covid-19 lockdown, is a national issue. If ever there was a time for central government to take a more pro-active role, it's now. Because if consent processes are so slow this will happen again.
The volatility of climate change means predicting "weather windows" is becoming more difficult. Who predicted the severity of last summer's drought?
Some of this essential infrastructure has long lead-times. A second pipeline could take as long as seven years. We cannot roll the dice on this. Resource consent at least for the additional 75ml/d must be issued. Now.
Then we must have a constructive review of how the RMA and the process surrounding it
could have taken over a decade to even get Watercare a hearing. Then consider next summer. How will the dams, at the lowest levels for 25 years, replenish themselves for next summer? Rain tanks and reducing leaks won't change this, or even make a material difference in the medium term. New technologies will take a lot longer (e.g. wastewater recycling ) and saving water has proven so far to be at the margins.
There is only one option and we need to take it.
• David Clarke was chair of Watercare from 2013-16 and Tony Lanigan, chair of Watercare capital works from 2013-17.