Watercare did nothing to boost Auckland's water supply in the three years leading up to one of the worst droughts in the city's history.
With summer fast approaching and the dams still at dangerously low levels, the prospect of further water restrictions is a real possibility.
But a Herald investigation has found Watercare did not implement plans to increase capacity from the Waikato River before this year, despite forecasts as early as 2013 saying the city faced security of supply risks by 2020.
The last time Watercare built some resilience into the water supply was four years ago in 2016 when it completed the final stage of taking the capacity of the Waikato River water treatment plant up to 150 million litres a day (MLD).
Since 2016, Auckland has experienced rapid population growth and been subject to climate change volatility, but plans to increase capacity at the plant by a further 25MLD in 2018 and a further 50MLD by 2019 did not happen.
Instead, Watercare has held out for the simplest and most cost-effective option on the table - a resource consent application lodged in 2013 to take a further 200MLD from the Waikato River.
The application currently sits in a queue behind 117 other consents before the Waikato Regional Council.
Environment Minister David Parker has said it will be fast-tracked but it will still take years of construction and hundreds of millions of dollars to secure the extra water.
Watercare does not have sole responsibility for ensuring the taps keep running. It has been at the mercy of extreme weather conditions and the recent review of the council-controlled organisations found "the council had no water strategy to, among other things, describe how much capacity the system should have to deal with such weather-related events".
Mayor Phil Goff told the Herald there is no point playing the "blame game", but behind closed doors he tore a strip off Watercare board chairwoman Margaret Devlin, telling the professional board director if the lakes ran dry there would be a huge economic cost to the city, with severe water restrictions and widespread industry closures.
"That is an unacceptable risk to Auckland and New Zealand," Goff said.
Devlin, who has chaired publicly-owned Watercare since November 2016 and been paid $108,000 in board fees, declined to be interviewed about the water supply issue. She insisted on answering written questions. The Herald requested a full interview several times.
Chief executive Raveen Jaduram, who was the public face of the drought before resigning two weeks ago, also declined an interview.
The Herald understands Jaduram paid the price for management not planning adequately for the exceptional weather conditions. Jaduram remains in his $775,000 job until the end of October.
Lake levels for the city are currently 67 per cent full, compared to the historical average of 88 per cent for this time of the year.
The timeline of events
2002: Auckland dips its toe in the Waikato River
Following a severe drought in 1994, a $100 million water treatment plant and 37km pipeline was built to deliver 150MLD of treated water to a reservoir in Manukau. The plant was gradually increased to this capacity by 2016.
2013: Alarm bells sounded
Engineers AECOM forecast the future demand for water in Auckland for Watercare and found demand would exceed supply between about 2020 and 2023.
Writing in the Herald in July, the board chair at the time, David Clarke, said 77 potential sources of water were investigated and the simplest and most cost-effective source was to take more water from the Waikato River.
He said it was a straightforward engineering project to expand the pipeline to take an extra 75MLD on top of its current 150MLD.
In 2013, Watercare lodged a resource consent application with the Waikato Regional Council to draw a further 200MLD from the river, 75MLD via the existing pipeline and 125MLD from a new pipeline, likely needed about 2030.
"The additional 75MLD was planned to be in place by 2019 to give Auckland the resilience to have a secure water supply from the predicted shortfall in the 2021 to 2023 window," Clarke said.
2013-2016: Planning for more water
The Watercare board, under Clarke, said Auckland's population was expected to increase by 260,000 from 1.4 million to 1.67m by 2026 and average water demand would increase from 390MLD to 435MLD.
The board made provision in its Asset Management Plans (AMPs) to increase the capacity of the Waikato treatment by 25MLD to 175MLD by the end of 2018 (at a cost of $40m) and a further 50MLD to 225MLD in 2019 ($65m).
2018: Planning pushed out
In the 2018-2028 AMP, Jaduram said water demand was forecast to outstrip current water supply within 10 years, prompting planned additions to existing water supplies.
The AMP did not contain yearly timings for new water supplies and allowed for the Waikato source to be increased by 25MLD between 2018 and 2030, and a further 100MLD sometime after 2030.
2016-2020: Auckland grows while the water supply remains stagnant
Between 2016 and 2020, Auckland grew by about 40,000 people a year and swelled to 1.6 million, bringing prosperity to the city but putting a big strain on infrastructure.
The planned increase in water supply did not happen.
2020: Summer drought
Between January 20 and April 6 Auckland went 78 days with less than 1mm of rain.
Clarke said history proved the shortfall of 2020 had come at the early end of the prediction in 2013, because of increased climate volatility.
Most, if not all, of the current water crisis could have been avoided if Watercare had upgraded the Waikato pipeline to draw 225MLD, he said.
February 10: Water is precious (but there's no need to save it)
Watercare launched a "Water is Precious" campaign, after saying Aucklanders used a "record-smashing" 561 million litres of water the previous week.
At the time, Watercare said "it's not about saving water or going without; it's about using water wisely so we make the most of our existing infrastructure". Among the suggestions were people taking a four-minute shower.
Mayor Phil Goff supported the campaign, saying he would be doing his bit to fill a bucket to wash his car rather than using the hose.
May 16: Water restrictions kick in
Tough new restrictions on outdoor water use - no washing cars, houses and watering the garden - came into effect.
Rogue water users could be hit with fines up to $20,000.
Watercare's tone from February changed, saying the city desperately needed to save what was left in the dams, which had dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since the drought of 1994.
The historic average for this time of the year is 76.7 per cent.
May 22: If Aucklanders want more water they will have to pay for it
In an interview at the time with the Herald, Jaduram defended Watercare's drought response and said if Aucklanders wanted a more resilient system, they needed to be prepared to pay.
He said the organisation was operating to drought response standards set after the 1994 drought to handle a one in 200-year drought.
So as not to run the system completely dry, Watercare was applying a one in 100-year scenario for the dams to hit 15 per cent storage, he said.
Complicating matters, there was no knowing when a drought would begin, or end, he said.
"There are comments there has been mismanagement or underinvestment, but it is occurring to the standard, to protect us from a one in 200-year drought event."
Jaduram said under Watercare's 2018 AMP, the next water source was not required until 2028.
This was based on water consumption in 2017 of 400MLD rising to 460MLD by 2028. But in 2019 it had already jumped to 440MLD.
If Aucklanders wanted more water, Jaduram said, "then councillors can set the standard, but it will mean more infrastructure and permits - more money".
June 4: Phil Goff blows his top at Margaret Devlin
The Mayor's concerns about the water crisis were laid bare in a letter from Goff to Devlin, obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act.
"There are some issues that deeply concern me," Goff said.
"We need to plan for the worst-case scenario of a drier winter and spring, and a summer where lakes run dry and alternative water supplies, including from the Waikato, provide us with only 200MLD when demand at peak will be above 550MLD.
"A shortfall of 300MLD would result in widespread industry closures, with a huge economic cost, and severe limitations on households' access to water."
Goff told Devlin he had not seen evidence of a clear strategic plan from Watercare to deal with a crisis and said its drought management plan "does not seem fit for purpose".
Looking forward, Goff said Watercare needed to look at water sources other than the Waikato River to have a truly resilient water supply.
Autumn/winter: Mad rush for new water
In recent months, Watercare has been working overtime to boost the city's water supply.
This has included bringing the Hays Creek dam in Papakura, mothballed since 2005, back into service at a cost of $57m to provide 6MLD this summer, increasing to 18MLD later next year.
It has also brought a bore into service at Pukekohe and expanded the Onehunga treatment plant for a further 9MLD.
Expansion work began in April on upgrading the Waikato treatment plant by a further 25MLD, bringing the daily allowable limit to 175MLD. In 2017, Watercare applied and was granted consent to take a further 25MLD from the river "when the flow is above its annual median level" from May to September.
This will be followed by a $145m upgrade for another 50MLD a day, which won't be ready until mid-next year.
In July this year, Watercare revealed the cost of its drought response had increased from $180m to $224m.
The extra $44m came as a shock to councillors, who were dealing with a $500m hole in the annual budget as a result of Covid-19. The $224m package means Watercare must find debt-related savings of $121m, which have still to be reported to the board and the council.
July 31: Watercare and Auckland Council get a roasting
An independent review into Auckland's five council-controlled organisations, chaired by Miriam Dean, QC, does not make pretty reading for Watercare and the council.
Dean, consultant Doug Martin and former Manukau City Council chief executive Leigh Auton said the drought was outside the scope of the review, but the issue came up in feedback. Many considered Watercare was unprepared and some foresight to provide extra capacity could have avoided water restrictions.
The review noted Watercare and the council had no joint response plan and "the council had no water strategy to, among other things, describe how much capacity the system should have to deal with such weather-related events".
When the review looked at Watercare's most recent audit and risk committee report from January 2020 it "did little more than describe such a risk as a 'failure to meet short-term water demand due to loss of supply or high consumer demand'."
The review also touched on Watercare's pricing and its legal obligation to keep prices to a minimum while maintaining its networks.
One former senior council manager said: "To have good reliable services, we will have to pay more." Another council manager put it more bluntly: "Watercare's price path is too low."
Watercare's response was that past investment allowed it to keep prices low.
The review was highly critical of the council's oversight of the CCOs.
"The council's many plans, policies and strategies offer almost no practical strategic direction to CCOs. They do not contain careful, detailed information about the council's expectations of CCOs so they can set their work programmes and priorities accordingly."
Goff: Auckland cannot afford to play Russian roulette with water
In an interview with the Herald this week, Goff said Watercare and the council did not anticipate the water crisis, nor was it sufficiently ready for it.
He said Watercare was working on the premise it had enough water to meet the city's growth up to the 2030s, but could not foresee a serious drought in the first six months of last year followed by an even worse drought in the first six months of this year.
"I'm not blaming them for not having 20/20 hindsight," he said.
When the seriousness of the drought dawned on him, Goff said it became obvious the city could not play "Russian roulette" with the water supply.
He said the job now was to build a more resilient system, which meant having more water than was needed in a normal dry year - the opposite of Watercare's drought response.
Goff said the council had to bear some responsibility, saying it did not have a proper water strategy and, like Watercare, was not sufficiently prepared.
Since the council picked up on the crisis, he said, it was acting at pace - "hopefully at sufficient pace to get us through this summer".
Dr Joel Cayford, a planner and former Auckland Regional councillor, describes Auckland's water crisis as the worst-managed drought in 100 years.
He said in 1994 it was the four former city councils working with residents who beat the drought. Since then, Watercare had come under the control of Auckland Council.
"This time Auckland Council's governance, leadership and performance has been abysmal," Cayford said.
Others have been scathing of Watercare and the council.
Waikato Regional Council chairman Russ Rimington has said Watercare "dropped the ball with its strategic planning" and has no Plan B.
Councillor Daniel Newman says the council has to address its responsibility as the shareholder of the water company and accused the Watercare board of being asleep at the wheel.
"The board has been as active as an Easter Island statue," he said.
In a statement issued by Watercare this week, the council-owned business said it had the infrastructure and was prepared to respond to droughts.
Communications manager Rachel Hughes said Watercare invested in infrastructure to stay ahead of population growth and maintained enough headroom between demand and supply.
She said mandatory water restrictions and projects to boost the city's water supplies were to ensure Auckland has sufficient water to see it through a drought worse than the one-in-200-year standard.
"We are undertaking these measures now because we do not know how long it will take to recover from the drought, especially as the seasonal forecast is for drier than normal conditions."
Hughes said making infrastructure "drought-proof" would require highly expensive desalination plants and recycling water that could take years to gain public support.
She said there had been relatively normal rainfall over winter, but more had fallen in the west, filling up the Waitākere dams, and leaving the large dams in the Hunua Ranges still recovering.
"Our total storage across our dams is 67 per cent full, compared with a historical average of 88 per cent for this time of year."