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Out of sight no longer – how the city’s water woes must be fixed

by Andy Foster
Collectively, Wellington City Council’s Three Waters network (drinking water, wastewater and stormwater) includes 2,653 km of pipes, 65 reservoirs, 103 pump stations, and three treatment plants, and is valued at approximately $3.86 billion.

Our three waters system has for many years been largely out of sight, out of mind. However, in December 2019 and into early 2020 a number of high-profile pipe failures, particularly in the City’s wastewater network, led to concerns about the condition of the City’s underground infrastructure.

The Mayoral Taskforce was established in February to investigate the condition, funding and management of the network, and to develop recommendations for its future.

The WCC responded further by increasing funding in its 2020–21 Annual Plan specifically for enhanced condition assessment and for roving crews to identify and address problems.

The Taskforce unanimously agrees that transformational change in governance, asset ownership, funding and management is required to lift the network’s performance to the level appropriate to a modern, inclusive and environmentally sustainable city.

During the period the Taskforce has been working, Government announced a national water reform programme which aligns closely with the Taskforce’s conclusions.

Key General Conclusions

Although WCC has been fully depreciating its water assets for many years, and providing the funding requested, the actual level of renewals investment has consistently been significantly lower than the depreciation collected. Significant funding has been directed to other projects. The result is that the network is ageing and deteriorating, leading to increases in pipe breakages and increasing water loss and wastewater leakage.

The scale of the financial challenge is very significant, and a reset is required.

The Taskforce recommends ring fencing depreciation funding in the first instance, in advance of any transition of assets and funding arrangements to Wellington Water Limited (WWL) or a successor entity resulting from any Government reforms.

The Taskforce found that WWL funding has been squeezed, resulting in reduced investment in asset condition assessment.

The Taskforce considers a well-planned and funded condition assessment programme is essential to good asset management, and to ensuring pipes are replaced at the optimal time, not too early, or too late. Better understanding of asset condition would more clearly establish pipes’ actual lives, rather than expected useful, lifespan and ensure accurate rates of depreciation.

The Taskforce also found that it appears that as the network ages, and possibly exacerbated by earthquake damage, maintenance and renewals are increasingly reactive rather than planned.

The Taskforce supports continued investment to ensure the three waters network is resilient in the face of Wellington’s seismic and climate change challenges.

Rapid population growth also means the network is nearing capacity in many areas, and there will need to be well targeted, but extensive investment in new infrastructure to align with urban planning for future population growth. A robust development contributions policy and other funding tools will be needed to ensure that growth pays for the costs it imposes.

Governance, funding, community participation and reporting

The Taskforce recommends that Councils should work together to transition their water assets and appropriate debt to WWL or a successor entity, which must remain owned by its constituent Councils. The Taskforce supports in principle the Government’s direction towards Council owned multi-regional entities providing drinking water and wastewater services.

The Taskforce considers Council ownership must be cemented into the foundation documents of WWL and any successor organisation. Alongside any new asset ownership and management arrangements the Taskforce considers it important that communities have an enhanced relationship with their water services at a catchment level. This includes the need for increasing transparency of information.

Drinking Water

There is a need to significantly reduce our collective water use to protect the environment and delay or avoid the need for expensive new water storage facilities. Rapid population growth means the four cities are approaching water supply limits. Water consumption per capita and the level of network leakage are high, and leakage is often hard to detect.

Consequently, the Taskforce concludes that water metering in time should replace rates as the means of funding residential water supply. This would enable rapid location and addressing of leaks, encourage water harvesting and reuse, forestalling the need for expensive new water sources, and give an accurate picture of the actual levels of leakage in the drinking water system.

The Taskforce is strongly of the view that any charging system must ensure everyone retains access to enough healthy and affordable water.

Wastewater and Stormwater

The Taskforce confirmed that stream systems are polluted by wastewater leaks from both public and private pipes, and by pollutants entering stormwater. The Taskforce agreed that past practices are no longer acceptable and embraced the principle of Te Mana o te Wai.

The Taskforce concluded that we will all have a part to play as kaitiaki, in progressively addressing these problems and better looking after streams and coastal waters, whether that is in reducing water use, repairing our own water systems, or in eliminating pollutants and inappropriate items going into wastewater and stormwater systems.

In addition to recommending more investment in condition assessment, maintenance and renewal of the public network the Taskforce recommends increased investment strengthening compliance processes to progressively identify and address failings within the private pipe network.

The Taskforce has 48 recommendations which together will create a resilient, modern, well managed, sustainable three waters system that continues to provide enough healthy drinking water, and will progressively eliminate adverse effects on the environment.

I want to finish by thanking the Taskforce members. They have given an enormous amount of time, expertise, and passion to ensuring Wellington has a three waters system fit for the future. They have brought inquiring minds and a willingness to explore, discuss and reach conclusions together.

The Taskforce comprised myself, Councillors, water infrastructure specialists, iwi, whaitua, community and business representatives and chairs of the WWL Board and Shareholder Committee. We have been supported by WWL and Council officers and our own independent expert. I want to record my deep appreciation for the commitment and expertise of all the Taskforce members and our support team. I commend the Taskforce’s report to the Council for its consideration and adoption.

This is the mayor’s introduction to the report from his Mayoral Water Task Force.

17 comments:

  1. Conor, 11. December 2020, 9:02

    Andy are you here saying you want to introduce metering? “the Taskforce concludes that water metering in time should replace rates as the means of funding residential water supply”

     
  2. aom, 11. December 2020, 13:18

    Of course that’s what Andy meant, Conor – in old parlance, it is the Clayton’s rates increase or how to screw the ratepayers for building follies without it showing on the quarterly bills.

     
  3. bsmith, 11. December 2020, 14:07

    Andy Foster is thanking himself and the Taskforce members for coming to the conclusion that WCC’s Three Waters supply is stuffed? Am I correct to assume he has been on the council for approx 28 years, and now he’s deciding something needs to be done? The council should have been supplying the basics (which, correct me if I’m wrong, is what a council is supposed to do for its ratepayers). Here’s a thought: stop the self serving vanity projects and deliver the basic services.

     
  4. Claire, 11. December 2020, 14:11

    Will metering be cheaper?
    ie less use, less cost for residents?

     
  5. John Klimenko, 11. December 2020, 14:39

    Well – talk of a time warp! Sorry Andy there’s nothing new in the task force’s suggestions except that it is the Local Council’s responsibility to ensure that the basics are provided to all residents be they ratepayers or tenants. Since Local Government Reform with the aspiration that Councils do not require City Engineers and Engineering Departments in favour of managers [who generally have little technical knowledge and rely on outside “experts”] the services provided by all Councils have been degrading. In the early 1990s then then National Government required Councils to invest in essential services and required the introduction of “Asset Management Plans” to ensure timely maintenance and by the depreciation process to fund replacement and upgrades. There is little evidence that this edict worked. I have noted with despair that this Council has been quietly divesting itself of as many as possible “service delivery” functions. This latest report appears yet another way of doing this, by divesting itself of all now knackered utilities so that it can claim a reduction of rates due to the failure over 25 years to manage the assets properly. I am sure that the Labour Government of the mid 80s did not envisage such actions when they demanded that Local Government reform into smaller entities [amalgamation was the term used] on the argument of more economic service provision and affordable rates. Has that happened – sadly the answer is a resounding NO.
    We have seen that Council Managers and Councillors only appear to support “Show” projects – cynically perhaps, to be best remembered by. Seldom is there any real consideration given to the ratepayers who fund these.
    I support the introduction of water meters but not on the basis of excusing the Council from meeting its obligations to ratepayers and residents.

     
  6. John, 11. December 2020, 14:50

    Claire to answer your question: No. Initially, Councils do keep the cost low but eventually the price exceeds the actual cost of supply / treatment. In this case WW will charge what it feels like to recover as much cost as possible. Also unless they meter water going into specific areas, the losses on Council mains will only be addressed on an as-identified basis but we will all be paying for those losses.
    Nothing new here!

     
  7. Medlar Jelly, 11. December 2020, 14:51

    Don’t count on it Claire. Perhaps initially but then it will be yearly increases. I wonder what the newly-anointed rainbow committee’s opinion is on this.

     
  8. Ms Green, 11. December 2020, 15:55

    OK folks. You have five days’ notice to comment on this little Christmas surprise. But the Council will already have had a persuasive secret workshop on it. So let’s say you have about 2 days to comment and write to your local councillor and mayor. If you write to the mayor you may get a format reply that says it will take weeks to reply. Anyway, I suppose after 28 years of vacillation called consultation that Andy might understand – if he/they/the Council charge for all essential council services (that are left) on a user-pays basis as suggested, then we won’t have to pay rates? As Councillor Condie said (in the Dompost), we will still look after the poor! (“I’d want to see protections added to ensure poorer residents were not disadvantaged.” Now that’s radical!) So who will get water and will we have to start spending a penny (or two)/user pays again to get rid of our waste, (unless we are poor and can’t afford it)? Can’t wait for our surprise New Year’s present unless of course there are more surprise Chrissy presents.
    By the way, what does transformational mean?

     
  9. Claire, 11. December 2020, 16:09

    Cheers for that Medlar Jelly and John. For people on fixed or low incomes there is a rates rebate up to $500 a year. Wellington Water would have to offer similar regards water.

     
  10. Julienz, 11. December 2020, 16:43

    In 1999 we took advantage of the WCC “opt in to a water meter”scheme. I don’t think they still offer it. My RV is quite high but I don’t have a pool. We water our vegetables during summer but otherwise just shower, wash our clothes and dishes and flush the loo. We pay far less than we would pay if were on the per property water fee of $217.80 plus the base capital value water rate of .0004367 per dollar of capital value. The meter charge is $26.06 per month plus $2.80 per cubic metre used. We use around about 100 cubic metres per annum. I imagine under the proposed new regime this will all get recalculated upward to deal with the missing millions needed to fix all the leaks. Theoretically if we all become more frugal with water we should save money but I think larger households in lower value properties are likely to be in for increases and smaller households with higher values will see decreases. The powers that be concocting yet another reason for the young and poor to despise the old and “rich”.

     
  11. michael, 11. December 2020, 16:46

    What is the point of council’s transitioning their water assets and appropriate debt to another entity while keeping council ownership “cemented into the foundation documents” of that entity? Surely it would be better ensuring these assets are out of council control, as they have shown an inability to manage them, and little inclination to fund them over vanity projects. And, hopefully there would be far more accountability.

     
  12. Traveller, 11. December 2020, 17:16

    michael. I would be against moving water out of council ownership. Water is a public asset, it must absolutely be retained as such.

     
  13. Julienz, 11. December 2020, 19:59

    It is really quite concerning that ratepayers have been paying rates we were led to believe were for water but WCC have diverted them to other spending that is not water related. From the Task Force Report:
    “At WCC the debt, depreciation and rates revenue associated with water assets has not been ring-fenced. So, while rates collected for water depreciation were used to pay down debt, the debt ‘headroom’ created by this was not specifically tagged for future investments in water renewals. Given that renewals spending has been consistently less than depreciation funding for many years, it is likely that this debt has been used to fund other city infrastructure that is not water related.”

    @Michael – I read “Council Ownership” as meaning all four councils and being intended to cut off at the pass any suggestion of profit or privatisation. The report says: “Commit to the concept of an independent, publicly-owned, not-for-profit, water management and asset-owning entity that is governed and operates in accordance with a statement of intent from the shareholding councils.” But we might end up having to pay $700K for a CEO.

     
  14. K, 12. December 2020, 11:56

    Like many others, my initial thoughts were that this should be a core responsibility of the council, and it seems crazy they would remove it from their responsibilities. But then it dawned on me: Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. If the budget for this core service is removed from council management (and given to an entity that focuses 100% on it), then what is left under the control of the council and its budget is made significantly less important, and also smaller. That remaining amount of responsibility will then be exposed to much more scrutiny, and the “vanity projects” will account for a much larger portion of the council budget. In other words, if the council removes a large amount of its revenue source, what is left is much more vulnerable to ratepayers voting for candidates who will be proposing large cuts for a council that would suddenly have a large percentage of its budget being spent on what many consider “discretionary” projects.

     
  15. michael, 12. December 2020, 17:09

    @ Traveller: I agree that water is a public asset, but under council control it has been mismanaged and underfunded and there are no guarantees that our upcoming massive rate increase is going to go towards trying to fix the problem. If water is to stay under council control, there must be rigorous accountability. Ratepayers cannot keep forking out for council mismanagement.

    @ K: I agree that this is meant to be a core council responsibility but, over the years, they have relegated its importance. And, if transferred away from them, hopefully it would mean a reduction in staffing levels and more realistic planning and budgeting.

     
  16. Paul Redican, 13. December 2020, 16:41

    I am incredibly upset about this situation. I swim for mental and physical wellbeing. I cannot swim in any of Wellington pools due to a severe reaction to chlorine. I have been swimming year round in our harbour for years, but for the last three weeks the LAWA website has had ALL of Wellington’s coastline at a Code Brown ‘swimming not advised’ level. When I have queried this, the WCC’s response was “oh it’s just the rain it will clear up”. Well Wellington rains a lot. Is this going to be the new norm Andy? I guess there can be further taskforce meetings about it in the new conference center. I’m totally disgusted.

     
  17. M, 18. December 2020, 21:18

    It may become a separate entity, but will it have new management? Or will the current management just transfer across?