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A crisis, or unacceptable bad luck?

by Lindsay Shelton
“It’s unacceptable,” was the verdict after a water main in Island Bay broke twice in two days last week. The verdict came from an authoritative organisation – Wellington Water, the council company that’s supposed to stop the water mains from breaking. And since then the company has said that all the recent breaks are only “bad luck” – a verdict (first voiced by mayor Andy Foster) that is no longer possible to take seriously.

Two councillors have gone on the attack in the last 48 hours.

Fleur Fitzsimons, who lives in Island Bay, says Wellington faces a crisis because of the collapsing infrastructure.

Diane Calvert, who lives in Khandallah, says it’s a “civil emergency.”

And Opposition list MP Nicola Willis has sent a list of questions to Wellington Water, saying the infrastructure is “alarming, substandard and degraded.”

Not so long ago Mayor Andy Foster also sent some questions to Wellington Water. He has told me he’ll release his questions to us, but they havent yet arrived. We’ve asked for the answers as well – they will be as revealing as the questions.

Communications have been dreadful as the water infrastructure emergency goes on. Two Island Bay residents said they had no communication from Wellington Water when the water failed for the first day.

After the burst watermain in Kingston, when a brown smelly liquid flooded into Island Bay, the city council told people to stay out of the water … “and we’ll post updates as soon as we know whether this is runoff from the burst main.” The updates were never sent.

Wellington Water did however tell the DomPost it was likely the burst water main had pushed extra water into the stormwater pipe, washing dirt out to sea via the outfall pipe. Which didn’t explain the smell. And then the spokesperson said:

“The [incident] is actually a really good example of why you need to be careful swimming near stormwater pitfalls after rain. You can see how the runoff dispersed into the sea.” Which brought a response from swimmers who’d had to leave the water: “But it hasnt been raining.”

And it’s pointless to go to Wellington Water’s website for information. The Island Bay problems are the only ones that get a mention in its news section. So here’s a reminder of what’s gone wrong in the last three weeks:

January 27: Emergency waterworks on corner of Hargreaves and Wallace Street
January 31: Burst watermain on Tasman Street
February 3: Pollution returns to Owhiro Bay, two days after it was “safe”
February 3: Repairs to wastewater pipes under Abel Smith, Cuba and Vivian Streets
February 8: Burst water main on Owhiro Road
February 12: Burst water main in Severn Street, Island Bay, cuts supply to 70 homes, two nights in a row.
February 14: Burst watermain in Tawa
February 15: Burst watermain in Kingston

Read also
Wellington’s wastewater rates are below the national average

14 comments:

  1. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 18. February 2020, 9:49

    This will probably be interpreted as passing the buck but I cannot recall (as as city councillor 2016-19) receiving any report detailing the dire situation of the freshwater pipe system & proposing significant investment. We approved big investment in stormwater improvements in Kilbirnie & in the Omororo water supply reservoir and I expressed concerns about water leaks but we didn’t IIRC turn down any proposals for piping improvements. I agree these are not sexy items to spend on especially when e’quake related issues strained WCC budgets but I didn’t shy from proposals to raise revenue thru parking fee increases. A disappointing lack of initiative & communication between Wellington Water & WCC officers/portfolio leaders. I also wonder whether ground drying out at present is exacerbating leaks. [via twitter]

     
  2. Dave Armstrong, 18. February 2020, 9:50

    It’s not buck passing. Sometimes the problem is that info doesn’t even get to councillor level. Especially when a corporate entity over more than one council is involved. I was aware of the stormwater problems. Got that you approved investment. [via twitter]

     
  3. Michael Gibson, 18. February 2020, 10:47

    It is very simple: Wellington City Councillors have a responsibility to satisfy themselves that the city is being run properly. As far as water and sewage is concerned, this means getting at least an annual report signed by a responsible manager saying that all is OK – or, if not, what needs to be done. What exactly did the last report given to Chris Calvi-Freeman say on the subject? Chris, please let us know.

     
  4. michael, 18. February 2020, 12:12

    This is appalling and unacceptable mismanagement of one of the council’s core responsibilities, resulting in a crisis that is going to become a huge burden on the already suffering Wellington ratepayers, many of whom cannot afford any more rates increases. How much longer do we have to contend with the WCC pretending it is all “bad luck” and not their fault. When is someone going to take control, and get on with sorting it out? Start by trimming the fat at the council, dump the hundreds of million dollars ear-marked for vanity projects, and get back to sorting the essential services we pay rates for.

     
  5. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 18. February 2020, 14:12

    Michael, as portfolio leader for transport strategy & operations 2016-19 (and knee deep in trying to get Let’s Get Wellington Moving actually doing so), I relied on quarterly statistical reports on other areas of WCC and related operations. I encouraged and took a close interest in the successful Kilbirnie stormwater project and supported the Omororo reservoir project, but cannot recall any approaches from Wellington Water requesting a big increase in funding or warning of an impending water pipeline crisis. Cllr Iona Pannett, who led on infrastructure, and Cllr Simon Woolf, who led on Council-controlled organisations, might be able to say why this is.

    I don’t recall any public-excluded reports on water supply infrastructure; all other reports should be available for perusal on-line. If there had been an “impending crisis” report or briefing, I would have taken notice and supported the call for action.

     
  6. michael, 18. February 2020, 15:50

    Chris, given your comments I suggest it is time the WCC seriously considers what is happening overseas and brings management of these services back in-house. Last year a UK report by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) stated that 77% of UK councils were planning to bring services back in-house. This report noted that 78% of local authorities believe insourcing gives them more flexibility, two-thirds say it saves money, and more than half say it has improved the quality of the service while simplifying how it is managed. And “in an age of austerity, councils can no longer afford outsourcing failures. Most can deliver quality services at a better price and without sacrificing the workforce on the altar of the lowest bidder.”

     
  7. Dave Armstrong, 18. February 2020, 16:25

    Maybe a bit of direct central government assistance would be helpful, rather than a 25-year period of consultation, engagement, expensive websites and an overly aspirational name like Let’s Get Waterpipes Mended. [Read Dave’s full article here.]

     
  8. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 18. February 2020, 17:43

    michael (it pains me to start a sentence without a capital but I’ll do so to distinguish my response to you from one to former regional councillor Mike Gibson):
    I’ve had 35 years in local, regional and central government positions in three countries. A highlight for me was being responsible for the 1991 bus network review and outsourcing exercise in the Wellington region, which saw better services, lower cost & better coordination than previously (and currently). I’ve seen outsourced supply systems work extremely well and astonishingly poorly; I’ve seen in-house services delivered with excellence and with scant regard to customer satisfaction or the bottom line. In general, I’m skeptical of the value of outsourcing as it typically adds another layer of bureaucracy and profit-taking, and I’m doubly skeptical of the value of PPPs given the number of lawyers, accountants, systems analysts and other hangers-on involved from both sides of the model. Whatever system is employed, the key factors for success are good managers (with competence, honesty & vision), good communication (including business reporting designed to highlight emerging issues instead of hiding them) and good governance (by which I mean competence & political neutrality). If any of these three factors aren’t there, even excellence in the other two is unlikely to be sufficient to compensate.

     
  9. TrevorH, 18. February 2020, 18:50

    Michael: I agree with you. Outsourcing doesn’t provide services of an acceptable standard. This has been amply demonstrated in Wellington which is a far dirtier and less well maintained city than when key services were in-house. The Council and its managers don’t seem to give a damn or are powerless to act. The water systems crisis is an inevitable result.

     
  10. Ian Apperley, 18. February 2020, 19:19

    The WCC owns 25% of Wellington Water, according to the companies register, and Sean Rush, Wellington City Councillor, sits on their committee and has infrastructure (3 waters) as part of his responsibilities. Quick question. Has anyone seen this guy since the election?

     
  11. BaysGuardians, 18. February 2020, 19:21

    We could invite him to hang out at Moa Point – the residents have been gagging from the stench, have to keep all windows & doors shut in the heat, & all they were given by Wellington Watergate was some face masks!

     
  12. DrSea, 18. February 2020, 19:30

    Hah. Except they’re not the good face masks!

     
  13. Mark, 19. February 2020, 7:19

    So if the WCC only own 25% of Wellington Water who owns the other 75%? [All the other councils: Hutt, Porirua, Upper Hutt, South Wairarapa, and the Regional Council.]

     
  14. Little Dutch boy, 19. February 2020, 13:59

    All our institutions are in crisis.They are not people focused. Corporations and the likes do not care about nature except as something to use or extract profits from. They have a habitual pattern of non maintenance eg the Wellington Water/ Council not following advice and not installing the right water joints in 180 locations. Currently the Council and their company Wellington Water have a “people last” style of management.