Auckland's water management history has a strange way of repeating itself when there's a drought. Twenty-five years ago, Parliament was leaned on to support the Auckland emergency water pipeline legislation. Thankfully it rained just in time and the Waikato pipeline project went through due process a couple of years later.
Now, on the back of Covid-19 economic recovery fast-track legislation, Auckland is leaning on Parliament again. This time to get a fast-track consent to double the amount of water it takes from the Waikato River because of the current drought.
There are all sorts of problems with Auckland's panic approach to drought management, quite apart from the fact the drought has nothing whatever to do with the pandemic and its related emergency legislation, whose purpose is to urgently promote employment growth and support New Zealand's recovery from the economic and social effects of Covid-19.
Water management is about managing supply and demand.
Auckland's water networks leak about 15 per cent of the treated water that gets pumped into them from dam, aquifer and Waikato raw water sources. Each day about 70,000,000 litres of this treated water is lost due to leakage from poorly maintained pipes and damage. The amount of water lost has steadily increased since Watercare took over water networks owned and maintained by Auckland's city and district councils before amalgamation in 2010.
Even if Watercare could suddenly double its take from the Waikato River, it will still be losing that extra water from leaks – a bit like turning the bath tap on harder, but without putting the plug in properly. Watercare's annual reports to Auckland Council routinely show that more and more water is leaking from its networks. Social media is liberally sprinkled with accounts of water leaks that remain unattended to for days and sometimes weeks, while residents are told to avoid hosing their gardens and washing their cars.
The next supply problem is quality. Auckland's best raw water sources are the dams in the Waitākere and Hūnua Ranges, which are bush-clad catchments and produce water that mainly needs sand filtration and disinfection, and which can flow under gravity to where it's needed. Raw water from the Waikato is much more expensive to treat and supply because that water contains organochlorine pesticide farm chemicals and microbial contaminants, including cryptosporidium from dairy herd sewage, that need additional high-tech carbon-bed and nano-filtration treatment, requiring significant electrical energy to treat and then pump to Auckland. Doubling the Waikato water take means doubling the capacity and size of that complex and expensive water treatment facility.
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And then there's demand management and water conservation. In 1994, on average, overall water demand reduced by 25 per cent. By itself, this is equivalent to an additional supply of 100,000,000 litres of water, and this was achieved without spending a dollar. Some businesses did need to economise, but those with large roof areas installed water tanks for the next drought.
In 1994, local councils worked with their communities and instilled a "we are in this together" feeling and attitude to water conservation, akin to our country's response to the pandemic today.
Unhappily, the approach adopted by Auckland Council, especially, is dictatorial and remote, and all about water restrictions rather than seizing this drought as an opportunity to encourage innovation and education, investing in positive messaging, explaining how to "read your own water meter", record water use and see how each household can make a difference.
In 1994, Waitakere City achieved fantastic results by simple initiatives including the mayor showing how much water could be saved by putting a couple of bricks in his toilet cistern.
Watercare already has metering systems in place that can enable comparative water use tabulations, pitting community against community, and encouraging and rewarding good water conservation efforts. But Watercare has another tool it can use that is more or less routine around the world in urban droughts, and that is to reduce water pressure. This reduces the amount of water lost through leaks and reduces the flow of water when taps are turned on.
Droughts are survived drip by drip, initiative by initiative, household by household. Then when the drought is passed, and everyone's wiser, money can be spent carefully and wisely on what needs to be done to be more prepared for the next one.
• Joel Cayford is the New Zealand Planning Institute policy adviser and a former city and regional councillor. He writes here in a personal capacity.