Wellington's forgotten infrastructure has come home to roost in the form of broken pipes, sludge trucks, sewage in the streets, and a public outcry.
In January 2020 Wellington's mayor was comfortable with the amount of money being spent on water infrastructure and described the timing of two catastrophic pipe failures as "appallingly bad luck".
A year later it is clear the state of the city's horizontal infrastructure has nothing to do with luck and is instead the victim of decades of underinvestment, three of which Mayor Andy Foster has been on council for.
The alliteration that is "Wellington Water woes" has become an election issue, a topic of conversation around the dinner table, and one of the biggest financial burdens facing Wellington City Council.
The unseen network of pipes sprawling in the shadows beneath the city has been catapulted into the spotlight, revealing an ugly truth.
The problem is not exclusive to Wellington - councils across the country are coming to grips with the same looming issues.
But the failures and politics playing out in the capital have become the poster child for New Zealand's water infrastructure crisis.
How it started
Just days before Christmas 2019, 6.5 million litres of wastewater spewed into Wellington's harbour after a critical tunnel collapsed under the CBD.
It marked the beginning of Wellington's water woes.
But the incident itself was decades in the making, after the infrastructure was left unchecked to wither in the grasp of sulphuric acid.
A huge hole underneath Dixon Street was discovered by contractors carrying out network improvement investigations two weeks before the collapse.
It was thought to be as close as 1m from the road surface and was so bad there were fears the road could cave in, putting surrounding buildings at risk.
The alarm bell rang out and an emergency response team was swiftly pulled together.
Despite their best efforts, the cavity still collapsed, causing a major blockage.
Wellington Water scoured places to hold the wastewater that had nowhere to go, including pump station wet wells and a storage tank under the Michael Fowler Centre.
This was supplemented by sucker trucks working around the clock to remove about 1.45 million litres of wastewater.
But there was so much of it that there ended up being no other option but to pump the water into the harbour as well. Nearby streets narrowly avoided being flooded with sewage.
An above-ground bypass pipe was put in place as a stop-gap measure, which was eventually trenched down Willis St as a permanent fix.
Subsequent to the event, it was discovered that a report as far back as 2004 identified an area of significant corrosion in the place where the tunnel failed and recommended further inspection on a 10-year cycle after repairs.
But that report was archived and lost as the management of Wellington's water twice changed hands between then and now.
Inspections between 2013 and 2018 were based on observations from 70m upstream from the failure point because that part of the tunnel was costly to get to.
It probably would have been considered money well spent if Wellington Water staff had known about the 2004 report.
Instead, a tunnel already in poor condition sat there for 16 years with sulphuric acid eating away at its concrete walls.
Two failures within a month
January 2020 only brought more bad news from the pipes that had been out of sight and out of mind for too long.
A pipeline tunnel failed beneath Mount Albert and, as a result, more than a million litres of sludge had to be transported every day by truck from Moa Point Treatment Plant and the landfill at Carey's Gully until the pipeline could be repaired.
The sludge pipeline from the treatment plant to the landfill runs for 9km and consists of two pipes, which usually operate one at a time to allow for maintenance.
Wellington Water considered it "highly unusual" that both pipes failed at the same time, especially because the infrastructure was only about 25 years old.
To repair the problem, a polyester woven liner had to be winched from one end of each pipe to the other, then expanded to essentially act as a new pipeline within the old one.
But the process was so complicated overseas experts would have to be flown in to do the job.
Then Covid-19 hit.
All of a sudden the council was facing a $70 million shortfall for the 2020/21 year as its revenue streams from the likes of parking and swimming pools dried up.
This was while the sludge-trucking operation was costing a whopping $680,000 per week, or almost $3m per month.
When and how successfully the pipes could be fixed was up in the air.
It led the Three Waters portfolio leader Councillor Sean Rush to raise the prospect of dumping sludge in the Cook Strait instead.
The idea was quickly shot down.
In the end, a group of technicians left their families in the middle of a global pandemic and managed to fix Wellington's sludge pipes rather smoothly.
The five people tasked with the mission arrived in New Zealand after securing special permission to enter the country. They were brought over from Frankfurt on the return leg of a German Government-sponsored repatriation flight.
The team spent 14 days in quarantine in Auckland and were then driven to Wellington.
They formed their own bubble in a hotel where they had use of a conference room to prepare for the physical work ahead.
The first of two pipe repairs was successful meaning the "turd taxis" could be taken off the road.
A mayor missing in action
The water crisis was the first real test for the newly elected mayor.
In late January Foster said it was "appallingly bad luck" the incidents had happened in such close proximity to one another.
He said all the stops were being pulled out to get the infrastructure failures fixed quickly.
Foster suggested there could be underlying issues from the 2016 Kaikōura Earthquake.
He told media he was comfortable with the council's current spend on water infrastructure, which amounted to about $180m a year.
When the Herald asked Foster whether the council was quick enough to publicly respond to the issue, he said he was on the ground from day one.
"Talking with the staff, trying to understand what the situation was, what the options were.
"I've been down several times since and that's talking not only with management, but also with the guys who are actually doing the work on the ground, so we've been responding all the way through and paying a lot of attention to this," he said.
But he was near invisible to the general public and was behaving more like a councillor than a mayor.
There was an outcry from Wellingtonians.
It was not so long ago that people were told issues on the city's bus network were just "teething problems" and would be ironed out soon enough.
Systemic issues such as a bus driver shortage blindsided Greater Wellington Regional Council, so it begged the question, was there a bigger problem going on with the water pipes?
A delayed effect from the Kaikōura earthquake was pure speculation. What was more certain was the underinvestment in basic infrastructure.
Leaked emails showed that Wellington's mayor and new city council boss came under pressure to publicly front up as the capital's water woes reached "crisis" point.
Councillor Diane Calvert pushed for the mayor and new chief executive Barbara McKerrow to issue a joint statement on next steps "ASAP".
"Providing confidence to the public on activities under way is paramount," she wrote.
Publicly, Calvert labelled the situation a "civil emergency" and her colleague Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons called it an "infrastructure crisis".
Deputy Mayor Sarah Free sent an email in response and agreed the situation was concerning and "a media release might be a good idea".
The pressure mounted and Foster swung into action, calling an urgent meeting between Wellington City Council and Wellington Water.
He then announced a mayoral taskforce into three waters.
A crisis uncovered
Over the ensuing months, information about the state of the city's water pipes was brought to light.
Figures compiled by Water New Zealand showed a third of Wellington's wastewater pipes are in poor condition.
These pipes also had the oldest average age, 51, compared with pipes in Auckland, Christchurch, Hamilton, Tauranga and Dunedin. Well-installed pipes should last for at least 100 years.
Performance measures revealed Wellington Water was on average taking 23 hours to respond to urgent callouts - falling well short of the one-hour target.
Meanwhile, the target median response time for wastewater overflows was six hours, but the actual time taken ended up being a day.
Almost 12.9 per cent of Wellington City's pipe network was found to be made of asbestos cement, which is far less than other cities in the region like Porirua.
Regardless, it was still problematic as it's now known the average life of asbestos cement pipes is about 50 years.
Leaks in Wellington were prolific with as much as 30 per cent of all drinking water being lost before it reached the tap.
By the time the report of the mayor's three waters taskforce was released in December 2020, there wasn't a lot the city didn't already know.
Considering that, anything but a warts-and-all report would have been strange.
But the work was important both because it made 48 recommendations for the future and it was a document set in stone against which Wellington City Council could be held to account.
Wellington Water is now in discussion with the council about funding requirements for the upcoming Long Term Plan.
It has recommended a capital investment of about $1.5 billion over 10 years coupled with more than $30 million each year for operating expenditure.
This is what the company considers necessary to start making inroads into investment deficits and progress on strategic challenges like growth and water demand reduction.
The taskforce identified a key governance failure was political pressure to keep rates lower than what was actually required to maintain the infrastructure assets and services.
In recent years the budget process has typically involved Wellington Water being sent a fiscal envelope to work within.
The taskforce proposed ownership of the council's water assets should be transferred to the same entity that operates the network, whether that be Wellington Water or a new one created through the Government's incoming three waters reforms.
Given the significant investment required in three waters assets and other infrastructure in Wellington City, the council is likely to hit its debt limit within the next decade.
But if the assets were transferred to a separate entity, which did not need to be consolidated into the council's balance sheet, it would be able to borrow significantly more against the same asset base.
A key component of getting this balance right would be public ownership of the water entity, the taskforce stressed.
The here and now
It is now clear for Foster and his colleagues that the status quo is simply not going to cut it.
"Since the first pipe was laid in the city we have been underinvesting in renewals," he said in the last council meeting for 2020.
But Foster did say the "shocking" underinvestment wasn't as evident as some might think.
Looking through past annual reports, the numbers existed but were not highlighted, Foster said.
"You wouldn't find them unless you were really looking for them."
He also pointed out that over the past decade there have been no council papers on the state of the pipes and the issue has not been prominent in local body elections.
Foster is now pushing water metering as one of the essential tools to help get on top of Wellington's water woes.
Water metering is seen as both a way to change behaviour in relation to demand as well as a mechanism to detect leaks.
The mayor also has the backing of Greater Wellington Regional Council chairman Daran Ponter to install residential metering.
But the move is politically challenging and there is already strong opposition being voiced from the left side of Foster's council.
The coming year will be testy for local government politicians. They will have to make unpopular decisions and increase rates to pay for it.
But they will also have more public buy-in than ever before because people have seen first hand how close the city has got to having poo on the streets.