Taupō resident Ariana Hunia watched in disgust as wastewater from a burst pipe, which she initially thought was dirt and pumice, moved down the river beside her home.

Between 70 and 80 per cent of Taupō's wastewater poured into Lake Taupō and its lake shore yesterday after a wastewater pipe broke on the lakefront just after 2pm.

Hunia lives beside the Waikato River, near where the river meets Lake Taupō, and said the usually clear river was a dirty stream for hours yesterday.

"I didn't know what it was at first ... I found out it was the sewage and pipe and thought that's disgusting," she said.

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"There was so much coming down for hours."

She said it seemed mostly clear now but she could still see "chunks every now and then".

Between 70 and 80 per cent of Taupō's wastewater poured into Lake Taupō. Photo / Helicopter Services
Between 70 and 80 per cent of Taupō's wastewater poured into Lake Taupō. Photo / Helicopter Services

Born and raised in Taupō, she said she would never allow her children in the lake again as it was not the first time sewage had made its way into the lake.

She said at about 3pm, before she saw what had happened, the water in her kettle was an orange colour.

Despite the council assuring drinking water was okay, Hunia had bought bottled water to drink for at least the next two weeks at least.

Taupō residents were urged to minimise toilet flushing and water use this morning as the clean-up from yesterday's sewage spill began.

Taupō District Council said on its Facebook page this morning a temporary fix was in place but it was likely to come under pressure during the usual wastewater peak about 9am.

Between 70 and 80 per cent of Taupō's wastewater poured into Lake Taupō. Photo / Helicopter Services
Between 70 and 80 per cent of Taupō's wastewater poured into Lake Taupō. Photo / Helicopter Services

Taupo District Council chief executive Gareth Green said about 70 per cent of Taupo's wastewater flowed into the lake within the initial two-hour period after the pipe broke but there was no exact leverage.

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The pipe had a 100-year lifespan but had not yet reached 20 years, he said.

As the asset owner, Green said the council was ultimately responsible for the spill, but it was not a matter of a lack of maintenance.

Green said they were unsure at this stage what caused the damage but it could from a number of things, including the recent earthquakes.

Focus Live earlier: Taupo residents urged to avoid flushing as wastewater pipe bursts

"It hasn't failed on its own," he said, saying the earth around the pipe meant natural factors ultimately affected the pipe.

Green told RNZ's Morning Report the waste had spread along 200m of the lakefront and down the Waikato River.

"We think there's probably 190,000 litres of wastewater went into the lake at that particular point, so yeah, very considerable spill by any stretch of the imagination."

That figure has since been updated to an estimate of 800,000 litres.

The flow had been shut down early afternoon, early evening Tuesday, he said.

"There's no more sewage going into the lake, however the solution that we've got in place is only a temporary fix so we are having to ask residents to conserve water and to reduce their flushing."

Contractors at the scene of the water main break on Taupō's lakefront. Photo / Supplied
Contractors at the scene of the water main break on Taupō's lakefront. Photo / Supplied

Green said the quality of drinking water in Taupō was not affected by the wastewater overflow.

"However, we still need people to conserve water and minimise the impact on wastewater flows by not flushing toilets unless absolutely necessary, and not taking baths and doing laundry."

Read more:
'Very disturbing': Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board calls for investigation after raw sewage pours into Lake Taupō
Clean-up after raw sewage pours into Lake Taupō to take weeks - residents asked not to flush

"The normal morning peak that comes through the pipes; we would struggle to be able to cope with a normal flow."

He said they would be working with Waikato Regional Council and Tūwharetoa Trust Board - which owns the lake bed - on the clean-up.

"In some ways, nature will take its course and will be the best thing to be able to solve the problem but there will be some cleanup of things that we can physically do down there as well."

Between 70 and 80 per cent of Taupō's wastewater poured into Lake Taupō. Photo / Helicopter Services
Between 70 and 80 per cent of Taupō's wastewater poured into Lake Taupō. Photo / Helicopter Services

However, he said there should not be too much impact on water life because of the size of the lake and the current produced by opening up the control gates yesterday.

"Obviously you've got a whole lot of nutrients which went into the lake that certainly shouldn't have been there - that's not ideal and will create some weed growth and things in that area which is where we'll take some advice from the experts today."

Green said it would only be days - weeks at the most - before people could swim in the lake if they wanted.

"No longer than that would the levels be over the recommended contact levels."

Although there were "high levels of bacteria" in the lake, Green said there was 100 per cent confidence in drinking water and there was monitoring at the plant to ensure this safety was maintained.

View along the lakefront of the area affected by the spill this morning. Photo / Laurilee McMichael
View along the lakefront of the area affected by the spill this morning. Photo / Laurilee McMichael

"I guess in some ways we are fortunate ... that it's the middle of winter, so obviously I think the lake temperature's about 10C so nobody is swimming at the moment which is a small mercy, I guess.

"Most importantly is around the clean-up that is going to be required around the lake shore and into the Waikato River, where the pumice and now effluent has [flowed]."

He said a permanent repair for the sewerage pipe could be weeks or months away.

Taupō District Council said schools could remain open today but to also minimise water use and toilet flushing.

A section of Lake Terrace is closed as council staff and contractors work to repair the damaged pipes on the Taupo lakefront. Photo / Laurilee McMichael
A section of Lake Terrace is closed as council staff and contractors work to repair the damaged pipes on the Taupo lakefront. Photo / Laurilee McMichael

Green said the regional council would oversee any charges and prosecutions and were currently on site observing.

"The flushing ban has now been changed from reducing any flushing, which was put in last night, for residents to now follow 'if it's yellow, let it mellow,' with the temporary fix in place.

"But it was important for people to save water where they could such as with shorter showers or not using the dishwasher," he said.

The permanent solution could take up to 10 months but the semi-permanent repair would be in place in about three days which would mean the restrictions for the town on water would be lifted.

Green said he did not believe the contamination would affect tourism and "people will understand" the scale of the lake would mean it would be safe to swim in eventually.

"You can't sugar coat it, it's a lot of waste," he said.

Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board chief executive Topia Rameka said it was "very disturbing" to hear of the major spill into Lake Taupō.

He said the board would be calling for a full investigation.

He understood the Taupō District Council and its contractors were doing a thorough clean-up operation.

"We will be keeping in close contact with council while that operation is in progress," Rameka said.

"While this incident is still unravelling, our immediate concerns are for the health and wellbeing of our local communities and our taonga - Lake Taupō and the Waikato River.

"We will be calling for a full investigation of this incident, how it came to be, how it has been responded to and how it will be remedied to ensure such incidents are mitigated into the future."

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Whakarewa principal nominee Akuria Walker said whānau had been "devastated" by the contamination.

The curriculum is based on the wellbeing of the lake, he said and staff and students were "Tūwharetoa defenders".

"All our wellbeing, everything about being Tūwharetoa is wrapped up within our lake," he said.

"The wellbeing of the lake reflects the wellbeing of the people . . . for this to happen is pretty tragic."

The school decided to close until Friday in a decision led partly by the students who took their responsibility as tangata whenua "very seriously".

Over the next few days, whānau and staff will have a hui about what they could do in the light of the tragedy: an organic discussion on the issue at hand and an open discussion of ideas.

Schools allowed to stay open

Ministry of Education deputy secretary sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said it was up to Board of Trustees or early learning centres to decide on remaining open or closing and spent this morning contacting schools.

The ministry contacted 12 schools and kura, 21 early learning services and two home-based care, and all but one kura has stayed open.

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Whakarewa I Te Reo ki Tuwharetoa asked whanau to pick their children up and notified them the kura would be closed until Friday.

"We are aware that the Taupō District Council has suggested schools stay open, but reduce toilet flushing and water use where possible," Casey said.

Taupō business concerns

BurgerFuel Taupo store manager Cain Latham was worried the road closed around the store would impact the business as people may not want to walk far.

Latham's worry was that the road would not open by the time school holidays began next week.

Dixie Browns cafe operations manager Neville Steyn said the cafe was limiting water use as much as they could, reusing water where possible and not letting the water run unnecessarily.

Steyn said the restriction was not hindering their business but they would not be able to use less water as it was a health and safety risk, such as cleaning dishes with hot water.

The cafe was one of many outlets in the area cordoned off and the biggest concern was a drop-off in customers during the already quiet time of year.

Absolute Lake View Motel owner Gerard Mahoney said he was not going to ask his customers if they flushed their toilet or not but was under the impression the Taupō Council lifted the flushing restriction at 10am.

He said he was sure to mention the issue to customers.

Mahoney said he was not concerned about the impact it would have on his customers or off-the-street bookings, being in the cordoned area.

"What happens, happens. I've got bigger things to worry about," he said.

Acacia Lake View Motel owner-manager Christine Howden said it was important to be positive as the problem was out of everyone's hands.

"I'm not the type of person to moan about it," she said.

She said while she was not able to monitor the water usage of customers, she informed them and asked people to take shorter showers.

She said people said some people had told her they would not shower and instead go to the hot pools.

Taupo DeBretts Hot Springs operations manager Mirela Petrar said they were ready for an expected increase in the number of people coming to the pools tonight.

She said she expected people would come to the pools as an alternative to showers.

The pools were also busier when it was raining, which it is today.