Auckland's water crisis was "avoidable", say businesses threatening legal action over "discriminatory" restrictions that have forced some to start laying off staff.

The ban on hoses and water blasters is primarily hurting those in the exterior cleaning industry, and business owners say the region's water supplier Watercare has let them down in not keeping supply up with population growth and planning for increasingly dry weather.

But Watercare says the water shortage is due to the severity of the drought and lack of rain to refill storage dams, not capacity or infrastructure issues.

Restrictions came into force on Saturday for the first time since 1994, amid the driest start to the year on record.

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As of Tuesday dam capacity sat at 43.9 per cent, against a historical average of 77 per cent.

The wetter months of autumn and winter are typically when the dams are refilled, and so Watercare says the region needs to pull back on water use now, or face a dire situation next summer.

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Watercare also has consent to take 150 millions litres a day from the Waikato River, which makes up just over a third of the region's daily water use.

Auckland's water storage dams are at alarmingly low levels. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Auckland's water storage dams are at alarmingly low levels. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It was also granted consent in 2017 to take a further 25ML when the river was above median level, but is still working to finish upgrading its treatment plant and reservoirs to handle the increase, work which it said began in 2015 and is scheduled to finish in August.

Troy Hillard, managing director of Wash Rite with seven franchises in Auckland, said they felt "targeted" by restrictions that only applied to outdoor users.

The Upper Nihotupu Reservoir is running at critically low levels, as Auckland water restrictions are put into place from Saturday. Video / Brett Phibbs

Prior to the restrictions Watercare and Auckland Council told the industry three filling stations would be placed across the city where businesses could fill tanker trucks with recycled water to use in their work.

But this only occurred on Saturday, and from Monday just one station - in Penrose - was operating.

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The message was blunt from Brian Edwards, owner of Elite Property Wash. Photo / Supplied
The message was blunt from Brian Edwards, owner of Elite Property Wash. Photo / Supplied

Hillard said this meant it was uneconomical for them to take on any jobs outside a 10 kilometre radius of the station as they needed to hire the trucks, and pay the extra labour and fuel.

Due to the economic downturn customers were not willing to pay extra for the jobs, so they were mostly running at a loss.

"We told Watercare weeks before it could work if they had more of these stations across the city. We even costed it for them and suggested we were happy to contribute, but they didn't listen."

Hillard said he was planning to file for a judicial review of the restrictions and how they only affected businesses operating outdoors.

"We believe any restrictions should affect the commercial sector equally."

Watercare chief executive Raveen Jaduram said the shortage was due to a lack of rain, not capacity issues. Photo / File
Watercare chief executive Raveen Jaduram said the shortage was due to a lack of rain, not capacity issues. Photo / File

Mark Ridling said he had run The Housewash Company for 22 years, and employed 25 people, but already had to lay off eight staff members due to the restrictions off the back of Covid-19.

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"It is just devastating. We will aim to hire them back at the end of it if we can, but will be taking on heavy loans just to stay afloat."

Several other smaller businesses spoken to by the Herald told a similar story, with just the Government wage subsidy providing some relief.

Ridling said he had met with Watercare on Monday, as chair of a recently-formed Exterior Cleaning Industry Association, and presented a plan for the industry to reduce consumption 30 per cent.

"But this was rejected - they basically said we are on our own."

Rainfall in the Hunua Ranges is well below average, and the 1993/1994 drought when the region last saw water retrictions. Image / Supplied
Rainfall in the Hunua Ranges is well below average, and the 1993/1994 drought when the region last saw water retrictions. Image / Supplied

With below-average rainfall predicted for the rest of May and start of June, it was looking increasingly likely dam storage would drop below 40 per cent in the next few weeks, triggering stage 2 restrictions which would affect more industries.

Ridling said the industry understood the current need to conserve water, but believed Watercare had failed to properly plan for such a dry spell.

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"They know we are getting less rain and more people, and they have got the water there [in the Waikato River], but through incompetence and red tape Auckland, the country's powerhouse economy, is going to suffer."

Supercity Property Services director Murray Robertson is concerned about the water restrictions for Auckland businesses. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Supercity Property Services director Murray Robertson is concerned about the water restrictions for Auckland businesses. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Watercare applied in 2013 to take an extra 200MLD (Millions of Liters Per Day) from the Waikato River, at any time of the year, but this has languished in a queue due to the Resource Management Act's first-in, first-served process.

It also applied last week to take 100MLD outside peak demand, meaning it could be heard outside the normal consenting process, and was expected to be processed in the coming months.

But both the consenting authority Waikato Regional Council chair Russ Rimmington, and Environment Minister David Parker, have said even if the consents were granted immediately, Watercare would not be in a position to process the water.

"Watercare is only now getting close to being able to treat the extra 25MLD it was granted by this council three years ago," Rimmington previously said.

Watercare chief executive Raveen Jaduram said while they would like the 200MLD consent processed soon, it was about providing for future population growth rather than this drought.

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Two images taken 3 months apart of the Waitākere Dam shows the extent of the drought. Photo / Supplied
Two images taken 3 months apart of the Waitākere Dam shows the extent of the drought. Photo / Supplied

Auckland's water supply and treatment system was sufficient to see the region through a one-in-200-year drought, he said.

"Our system is designed to ensure Aucklanders can enjoy unrestricted access to water 99.5 per cent of the time. It is due only to the drought that we are now restricting water use for the first time in nearly 30 years.

"The problem with a drought is, you don't know how bad it is until it's over."

Water restrictions focused on outdoor use because they had no visibility over indoor use, which caused problems with enforcement, he said.

They had asked every business in Auckland to make a 10 per cent reduction, and every resident to save 20 litres a day, he said.

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"We are not targeting any specific business groups, but the nature of outdoor restrictions does mean some businesses are more affected than others and will need to put contingencies in place."

The council was "urgently working" to obtain the necessary agreements and permissions to open more recycled water distribution sites, he said.

"To get through this drought, we need to buy time until the rain arrives.

"To do this we are bringing two former water sources back into service – the Hays Creek Dam in Papakura and a bore in Pukekohe. But we also need all Aucklanders to be doing their bit to reduce their water use."