Water costs could rise in Auckland to pay for cleaner beaches and reducing raw sewage overflows into the city's harbours and streams.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff today put water back at the top of his agenda by announcing a new Safeswim programme for summer and flagging a possible new tax for water.
In a first for New Zealand, Auckland Council is set to introduce "real time" forecasts on water quality at 69 beaches and up to date information on other risks, such as tides and rips, stinging jellyfish and even shark sightings.
People are realists. They know good things are going to cost them some money
This will mean Aucklanders will know if it is safe to swim before heading to the beach.
The new programme draws on environmental information, such as rainfall, wind and tides to predict the concentration of bacteria in beach water and is 20 times more accurate than the current practice of retrospective test results of water samples.
It follows revelations by the Herald earlier this year that raw sewage mixed with stormwater floods into Auckland's glistening Waitemata Harbour from a century-old system every time there's more than 5mm of rain.
The figures are alarming. One million cubic metres of raw sewage and wastewater - the equivalent of 400 Olympic swimming pools - pour into the harbour each year.
Waste flows from 70 discharges points around the inner suburbs between 25 and 60 times a year. Smelly overflows spread sewage and wastewater on to surrounding land.
Goff has signalled an increase of hundreds of millions of dollars to improve water quality in his first 10-year budget, saying the current situation is unacceptable for a world-class city.
One idea is to take the extra spending and the $960m central interceptor project - a new pipeline and feeder sewers between the city and Mangere - off the council books and pay for it with a targeted water rate.
Aucklanders who benefit from the central interceptor and extra spending would pay the new targeted water rate on top of their water bills.
This could help Goff's promise to hold general rates increase to 2.5 per cent and the difficulty of borrowing more money when council is right up against its debt ceiling, but it carries the political risk of being seen as just another rates rise.
Goff said people knew there is no "free lunch" to clean up the beaches and he would be putting up a range of options in the 10-year budget.
"People are realists. They know good things are going to cost them some money," he said.
The new Safeswim programme is expected to be approved by councillors next week and launched on November 1.
The public will have year-round access on a website to forecasts on water quality with a "real time" alert function to inform them of risks as soon as they are detected.
Goff said the council had a responsibility to inform Aucklanders about the water quality at Auckland beaches, which "is worse than we would like to believe".
Last summer swimming was banned at 10 Auckland beaches because of worsening pollution from human and animal wastes.
Permanent signs declaring that the water is not safe for swimming went up at the start of summer at Laingholm and Wood Bay near Titirangi, the north and south lagoons at Piha, and at the Bethells Beach lagoon - all popular spots for children.
The council has stopped routine monitoring of water quality at all five sites, as well as at five other beaches that already had permanent warning signs - Cox's Bay, Meola Reef, Weymouth, the Wairau Stream Outlet at Milford Beach and Little Oneroa lagoon on Waiheke Island.