Wellington Scoop

Dirty water


by Lindsay Shelton
It’s been a bad few weeks for the council-owned Wellington Water company. Its most recent problem is sewage contamination in Owhiro Bay, ten years after the pollution was first reported.

Why has it taken so long to fail to fix the contamination in Owhiro Bay?

Sewage in the bay was reported in February 2010 and was then being “investigated.” After “a long and frustrating process,” the city council announced two months later that the problem had been fixed. Not so. Contamination was found again two years later, and investigations began again.

In 2017, when a different mix of contamination was reported, the council blamed a nearby landfill. Mitigation measures were discussed.

But this month’s spillage is the same as ten years ago – it’s sewage, at alarmingly high levels, as Tom Hunt reported in the DomPost:

Wellington Water became aware of the contamination spike at Owhiro Bay just before New Year’s Eve and put up signs but, with swimmers still using the water, it admits it could have communicated better. On one hand it has told residents it is fixing the problem – likely caused by wastewater including sewage getting into stormwater – on the other it says it is still trying to find out what the problem actually is.

It’s true that Wellington Water isn’t much good at communication. There’s nothing about the Owhiro Bay pollution on the company’s website.


And you can miss the three small signs at the beach. People were swimming in the polluted water yesterday. Apparently not aware of the danger.

Another of Wellington Water’s continuing problems involves another swimming ban – this one at the diving platform on Taranaki Wharf. And this problem is also nothing new. The platform was closed during the summer holidays in 2013 because of “water contamination concerns.” The area stayed closed to swimmers for two years, but at the end of 2014 – after $150,000 had been spent – the water was decreed to be clean and pure. Mayor Wade-Brown jumped into the harbour to prove the point.

But the expenditure didn’t work. At the end of summer in 2017, swimming was banned again, after testing again showed sewage contamination. It was worse in March last year – the Regional Council reported “the presence of raw sewage.”

When the rahui on the inner harbour was lifted after the major sewage overflow at the end of last month, the area around Taranaki Wharf remained closed. Wellington Water hasn’t provided any information for ten days. On January 10 things didn’t sound too good:

We have been working this week on Cuba Street to resolve a cross-connection to reduce the contamination in the inner Wellington Harbour. Recent tests show that the water quality has still not improved sufficiently, so we continue to advise people to avoid swimming or collecting seafood at the Taranaki Diving Platform … until further notice.

The consequences of the major sewage spill are still being felt – with part of Willis Street closed for months and big temporary pipes alongside the footpath till Wellington Water can install new ones underground. And let’s not ask too many questions about why a pipe that was 90 years old was the cause of the spillage.

Since this article was first published, Wellington Water has announced another problem – another two pipes have collapsed; they carry a million litres of sludge per day, which will now have to be transported on trucks. (Hold your nose!) And I’ve been reminded that I forgot to mention a fault this month at the company’s Martinborough wastewater treatment plant, which resulted in 90,000 litres of partially-treated sewage entering the Ruamahanga River.


  1. michael, 22. January 2020, 11:10

    While pipes are failing, the council is encouraging the building of multi-storey apartment buildings, which will mean a huge increase of pressure on our old and inadequate waste water system. This is irresponsible considering what it might mean in terms of increased pollution of the harbour.

  2. Traveller, 22. January 2020, 11:16

    Questions should indeed be asked – and answered – about why Wellington has been depending on 90-year-old sewage pipes, which then failed.

  3. Curtis Nixon, 22. January 2020, 11:34

    Wellington Water is another case that shows the failure of the current local government model. GWRC’s involvement is the primary red flag – an unnecessary and obsolete extra layer of bureaucracy that creates a lack of accountability or effective management of infrastructure and resources. Very similar to Metlink and its problems with running the bus system; also WREDA – a giant corporate bunfight and featherbed department.

    This type of neo-liberal outsourcing has been shown to be a failure. In-house services work best, with the shortest distance between governing body and infrastructure operator being necessary to remove the problematic aspects currently existing.

  4. Concerned Wellingtonian, 22. January 2020, 12:54

    Curtis Nixon, you seem to be implying that GWRC and Metlink are separate entities. If so, it shows that GWRC’s tactics are working since they are wholly responsible for Metlink.
    The tactics worked overtime at the last election when GW councillors were desperate to pretend that Metlink was nothing to do with them. I hope you were not fooled when you voted!

  5. Ron Oliver, 22. January 2020, 14:07

    Shades of the decision to erect the Michael Fowler Center. Let’s not worry too much about the leaky old sewage and water pipes in Miramar and elsewhere. Let’s build a new town hall. Obviously at the time the council decided that leaky old pipes in the ground that no one could see should not be of too much concern.

  6. Curtis Nixon, 22. January 2020, 14:25

    Here is an interesting and relevant Guardian story about the move in cities around the world to ‘remunicipalise’ water and other former-publicly delivered services.

  7. Elaine Hampton, 23. January 2020, 14:39

    I moved to Wellington in 1996, rented at Lyall Bay, so pleased to be by the sea. Took dog for a walk along the beach after work, at dusk, magic. Strange smell when we got back turned out to be “Sh…..you know what” on our feet, boots for me – had to be washed outside. An ongoing problem never properly addressed.

  8. Mark Shanks, 23. January 2020, 16:13

    Again I raise the question why is there any connection between wastewater pipes and stormwater pipes? They are two completely separate systems…or should be. If we are still relying on 90 year old pipes I presume we are still locked into 90 year old thinking ie. just dump it into the sea. [Wellington Water reveals cross-connections at Owhiro Bay.]

  9. michael, 23. January 2020, 18:57

    Curtis, I noted another article in the Guardian that explained how, after “40 years of awarding contracts to the private sector, insourcing is now the way for local authorities to cut costs and improve quality”, and “between 2016 and 2018, at least 220 local government contracts have been brought back into council control”. The result being that “ 78% of local authorities believe insourcing gives them more flexibility, two-thirds say it also saves money, and more than half say it has improved the quality of the service while simplifying how it is managed”. So why can’t WCC learn from the experiences overseas NOW, instead of waiting years to discover the same thing.


  10. John H, 24. January 2020, 15:33

    While I agree that more needs to be spent on preventative maintenance of Wellington’s sewerage pipes, I don’t see that the structure of Wellington Water has much to do with it. WW is fully owned by the TLA’s that use it (i.e. WCC, Hutt CC, Upper Hutt CC, Porirua CC, South Wairarapa DC and GWRC). To say that it has been “outsourced” or “privatised” or that it needs to be “re-munincipalised” does not fully reflect the reality of the situation. It came about because of the recognition that water supply and stormwater are connected region-wide (for instance, all the Hutt and most of Wellington’s stormwater ends up in Wellington Harbour and most of the region’s water ultimately comes from Remutaka and Orongorongo ranges) so it made far more sense to work collaboratively as one organisation. Should a super-city type unitary authority ever be created, then there would be no need for Wellington Water to exist but interestingly, its existence (illustrating how Wellington’s TLA’s are already working together) was used as an argument by those opposed to the proposed Wellington super-city which was knocked back by Local Govt NZ in 2015 due to a lack of public support.

  11. Alex van Paassen, 24. January 2020, 21:09

    Hi Lindsay and commentors. Great to see your interest in water quality in urban environments, and water network management.
    Water networks are complex, and there might be a few assumptions you’re working off that aren’t quite right, We’d be happy to have you come in to Wellington Water to talk about the issues Lindsay and others here have raised or any other specific questions you might have. We have a customer panel meeting every six weeks or so that you could come along to, or we’d be happy to look into arranging another dialogue forum that suits you. Let me know what you’d like to do.
    Alex van Paassen
    Manager, Community Engagement
    Wellington Water
    Alexander.vanPaassen@wellingtonwater.co.nz, 027 232 1672

  12. Curtis Nixon, 25. January 2020, 12:06

    John H. Wellington Water signed a $170 million contract with Veolia last year to take over wastewater treatment. This is the typical strategy – privatise the lucrative bits of infrastructure while running down the rest, leaving ratepayers to pay for the non-profitable parts ie the pipes – see current failures of the sewage system. If private outsourcing is going to be the model we follow, the territorial local authorities could directly contract an outside company, without a middleman like Wellington Water.

  13. michael, 25. January 2020, 14:52

    No wonder the council is losing control as it is becoming so far removed from the management. Have a look at what is going on overseas and take note! Bring the outsourcing back in-house and start managing your basic responsibilities which are “To meet the current and future needs of communities for good-quality local infrastructure, local public services and performance of regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses. (Local Government Act 2002, section 10 (1))”