ANALYSIS:

Wellington mayor Andy Foster has called an urgent meeting over a string of water failures in the city, after previously downplaying the issue.

Following the failure of two major pipelines within a month of one another, Foster described the situation as "appallingly bad luck".

But last week an old water main burst on Severn St in Island Bay, leaving residents without water for two nights in a row.

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Then, over the weekend, another water main burst on Quebec St in Kingston, leaving 120 homes without water.

Wellington Water's Gary Cullen told RNZ this week the recent spate of broken pipes was "unfortunate timing".

But putting significant failures such as these down to "luck" has been cold comfort for business owners who have experienced slowing foot traffic, or for residents who have been forced to go without water in their homes.

There has been a public outcry.

It's not so long ago people were told issues on Wellington's bus network were just "teething problems" and would be ironed out soon enough.

More than 1 million litres of sludge is being transported by truck every day after a pipeline failed. Photo / Georgina Campbell
More than 1 million litres of sludge is being transported by truck every day after a pipeline failed. Photo / Georgina Campbell

Fast forward almost two years and the whole sorry saga is only just coming to an end.

Systemic issues like the bus driver shortage blindsided Greater Wellington Regional Council, so it begs the question, is there a bigger problem going on with the water pipes?

There's speculation the bigger problem could be delayed effects from the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, but what's more certain is underinvestment in basic infrastructure.

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This afternoon Foster announced a last-minute high level meeting tomorrow between Wellington City Council and Wellington Water.

"With around 3000km of water pipes and a complex network of equipment and plants sitting behind it, there will always be the occasional issue. But there have been so many in recent months that we need to understand whether there are any systemic issues coming to light now," he said in a statement.

He also assured Wellingtonians the council was taking the issue "very seriously".

There were limited resources to deal with so many serious issues, so lower-level work would be deferred by Wellington Water, he said.

Wastewater is flowing through an above ground bypass on Willis St after a wastewater tunnel collapsed just before Christmas. Photo / Georgina Campbell
Wastewater is flowing through an above ground bypass on Willis St after a wastewater tunnel collapsed just before Christmas. Photo / Georgina Campbell

Wellington Water was already struggling to meet performance targets before pipes started failing in the network.

The median response time for attendance to urgent callouts was 23 hours, falling well short of the one-hour target, according to WCC's Quarter One report for the 2019/20 financial year.

Foster has been notably absent from what some have described as a crisis, leaving his city councillors to fill the void.

Councillor Diane Calvert has publicly labelled the situation a "civil emergency" and Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons has called it an "infrastructure crisis".

A third of Wellington's wastewater pipes are either in poor or very poor condition, making them in the worst state of the largest centres across the country.

The city's pipes also have the oldest average age, 51, compared with Auckland, Christchurch, Hamilton, Tauranga and Dunedin's, but well-installed pipes should last for at least 100 years.

Wellington also presents unique challenges like the geography of the city.

None of these problems can be considered in isolation, but they all come back to one thing and that's money.

Water infrastructure is very much out of sight, out of mind and often misses out on council spend ups as a result.

Everybody knows wastewater pipes aren't sexy.

The prospect of water pipes needing significantly more investment is a frightening prospect for a council budget already under pressure.

The city council has to come up with its share of the $6.4b Let's Get Wellington Moving project, it has to find money for the closed central library, and figure out what to do with the rest of civic square.

But none of these things matter as much as being able to flush the toilet or drink water from the kitchen tap.

As the owner of the city's water assets, it's up to WCC to cough up with the money for Wellington Water to make any improvements to its operations.

Today the Auditor-General's report, Reflecting on our work about water management, was presented to the House of Representatives.

It noted the management of the country's water resources was of deep significance and concern to New Zealanders.

"People expect the water from their taps to be clean and safe, wastewater and stormwater to not pollute the environment, and our rivers, lakes, and oceans to be healthy ecosystems that are safe to swim in and to gather kaimoana from. Failure to meet these expectations can cause lasting damage to the public's trust and confidence in public organisations."

Foster's meeting tomorrow signals a move into damage control.