Far North District Council has come under fire for failing for a nearly a decade to secure vital water supplies from the Sweetwater aquifer for Kaitaia residents.
With the ongoing drought hitting Northland hard and rivers flowing at record lows, council is now scrambling to secure extra water for Kaitaia and Kaikohe residents.
Emergency water tanks have been set up in both towns, where level 4 restrictions are in place, along with a growing number of other Northland towns.
Just yesterday level 4 restrictions were also placed on Omanaia-Rawene in response to critically low flows recorded in the Petaka Stream.
The new restrictions limit water use to essential drinking, cooking and washing and all outdoor water use is banned.
Two 30,000-litre water tanks have been installed in the public carpark at Russell Esplanade, Rawene, and will be filled with water trucked in from Whangārei.
On Tuesday the council revealed plans to look into temporary and long-term supplementary water supplies which include taking water from the Aupōuri aquifer at Sweetwater.
But critics say - and the council's own documents show - this could have been done many years ago.
The council was offered a supply from the aquifer shortly after the 2010 drought and has had resource consent to take water from the area since 2012.
A 2013 council document says council should adopt the purchase of assets of Sweetwater for $1.8 million and complete the project under council ownership and operation.
And just last year council resolved to proceed with Sweetwater aquifer as its preferred option to supplement water taken from the Awanui River, which is the main source of drinking water for Kaitaia residents.
But Mayor John Carter said the issue was complex.
"There's been a significant history [with Sweetwater] and we've been working on making progress," he said.
"We are currently in negotiations with two or three groups and that's been going on for some time."
The Aupōuri aquifer is located about 8km west of Awanui and is used for commercial purposes for the rural sector.
It covers 75,322ha and extends along the length of Ninety Mile Beach on the west coast, and from the east coast up the peninsular to Waihopo north of Houhora.
The land is owned by several iwi including Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto, and avocado grower Tony Hayward owns the land the bore is on.
Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi said the council needs to have a "robust management plan for water and the community needs to be included in that".
Te Rarawa has approached council at least twice over the last five to six years to try and establish a new water source in the Kaitaia area, he said.
"Council has declined to join us on that and instead established an alternative infrastructure involving private enterprise.
"In situations like today, the user pays the price of this non-inclusion. We were willing investors, but council has not seen us as a suitable partner. We're at the point now the council has to admit they are failing to come up with the infrastructure response it requires."
Piripi said the issue has been going on for years.
"It's not a new problem ... we are still limping along trying to get water when we should have planned ahead for it."
The council recently revealed plans to allow bulk water carriers to use the bore to fill residents' water tanks. This should be up and running in about three weeks.
Earlier this week the Government allocated $2m from the Provincial Growth Fund to set up water supplies for Kaitaia and Kaikohe. In Kaitaia's case, water will be piped from the Sweetwater farm.
Both these measures are only temporary.
Carter has also said council hopes to secure the aquifer as a permanent water source for Kaitaia residents by next year and is talking to the owner of another bore which could be a second supplementary water source for Kaitaia.
Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said the council had a responsibility to future proof water supplies to the town.
The council led by previous mayor Wayne Brown was at least making headway in this area, he said.
"Wayne Brown and his council had a solution," Jones said.
"Then, when the [current] council came in with allegations made to the Serious Fraud Office about the conduct of that council, that seemed to suck up so much energy that solving the actual problem went off the agenda."
"What's happened in a lot of our councils is that inertia has become the basic operational style. We've created a culture in New Zealand in local government that we immediately identify the reasons and obstacles we should not do anything. That was never part of the culture that built our country."
The council started a multi-million project to access water from the Sweetwater aquifer in 2013 after reaching an agreement in principle with land-owner Tony Hayward to buy a 4ha site near Awanui as a bore field.
Council spent $2.6m on aquifer tests, engineering studies, legal fees, the resource consent and easements before the project fell over in 2014.
This coincided with a Serious Fraud Office investigation into council finances.
The SFO was called in by the newly elected Carter, following an internal inquiry to investigate activities of concern between 2009 and 2013, when Brown was mayor.
The investigation found some council members and employees failed to comply with internal processes, though there was insufficient evidence to lay criminal charges.
Brown said yesterday the Sweetwater project was all signed up and ready to go before the incoming council "stopped the provision of water to the people of Kaitaia who needed it".
"We had it ready; all they had to do was put it in place. It [Kaitaia] needn't be in this situation. They're doing the right thing – but that was exactly the right thing seven or eight years ago."
Carter would only respond by saying: "There's been a lot of work in intervening years and we're making progress."
Hayward said he and the two other landowners who need to be involved in the temporary water supply at Sweetwater are totally in support of the move.
"It will be great for Kaitaia" he said.
"The aquifer is a perfect source of sustainable water for the town. There's nothing worse than not being able to have a shower and flush your toilet. This is a crisis and we're all willing to help."