Wellington Scoop

Getting change by making trouble

by Eugene Doyle
I want to talk about the role that activists like me have in triggering real change in the water sector. I want to share the stresses, some of the tactics and the way people like me think, all in the hope that it will encourage water sector executives, council staff and political leaders to work more constructively with us. But, first, a bit of context …

“I just thought I’d warn you: you’re about to be attacked in the media.” The phone call was from my local City Councillor and it was a Friday evening in February 2020. I had been battling Wellington Water for weeks over dangerous levels of faecal contamination that had closed Owhiro Bay and polluted our stream, as well as their refusal to share data with us.

The warning made me really nervous. I wasn’t used to this sort of thing and the thought of being up against Wellington Water, one of the region’s biggest companies, with a PR budget running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, jangled my nerves.

The trigger was an email I sent them, cc-ed to media, earlier that day:

“As an organisation we are calling on you to stop trying to be Bond villains on trainer wheels and start engaging with us as, effectively, the public servants you are. Given the crisis, given its ongoing nature, how on earth can you justify not testing the Stream mouth and having a hopeless monitoring programme upstream? The pressure on you won’t stop until you do the right thing.”

Bond Villains on Trainer Wheels. They didn’t like that. Now they were biting back at me. Their reply, sent to the same media, publicly accused me of being sensationalist, inaccurate and a poor community leader.

Tensions between the water company and our Owhiro Bay community had been running high since our bay was closed in January due to enterococci counts hitting hundreds of times the safe-to-swim level due to faecal contamination pouring into the Owhiro Stream from failing public and private pipes. Water asset failures had become an almost daily front page story in Wellington and we were up to our eyeballs in what I described to Stuff as a tsunami of faecal matter.

Wellington Water, like most water companies, hadn’t liked sharing data and were incredibly slow and poor at it. I had only succeeded in getting scraps from them. That day we were also told monitoring of the stream outlet would be stopping shortly.

The frustrations built as a major pipe linking the City’s Moa Point sewage treatment facility and the Southern Landfill (also located in Owhiro Bay) broke in February, leading to hundreds of daily truck movements of the infamous Turd Taxis – a fleet of trucks that, at a cost of $100,000 a day, chauffeured the city’s poo round our coastal road and up to the landfill for disposal. (This isn’t the place to go into how barbaric this method of sludge disposal is – but take it as given that we want our great nation’s capital to fund modern treatment, not just mix sludge with rubbish at a 4:1 ratio then toss it into our valley like an old pizza box out the back of a ute).

In the coming days, all this argy-bargy would find its way onto the front of the DominionPost and play out on National Radio, Stuff, TVNZ and other outlets.

The formidable Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons hauled the executives over the coals for their behaviour towards me; and my community, including our highly talented and pugnacious residents’ association, rallied round, as did a network of water activists like the Friends of the Owhiro Stream and the Owhiro Stream Team. The water company took a public beating for the ages, at a time it really couldn’t afford another bad story.

It culminated in a public apology to me: “Wellington Water apologises for ‘inappropriate’ email rant” ran the front page headline. I graciously accepted:

“Doyle told Stuff he had accepted the apology and didn’t hold any grudges over the exchange. It’s been a tough week for those guys. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, even if a fair bit of it is turd-infested. We’re very focused on what really counts – which is cleaning up the bay and ensuring everyone has access to information.’

The stoush and the media flurry it triggered did what I had been gunning for over weeks of campaigning: it forced the company to change tack and seriously engage. The hard fact is that without a media “share price”, it’s very hard to get people to take you seriously. The trick is to make it a fruitful conflict.

Within hours of Councillor Fitzsimons’ call to me, I received another, equally surprising one: from Colin Crampton, Chief Executive of Wellington Water. It would prove to be the first of many contacts and the start of a process which by the end of the year would see a number of significant changes to the way Wellington Water engaged with community groups, the launch of a data sharing platform, the way the company itself was structured, and major new initiatives launched to address the infrastructure failures that had led to the contamination of Tapu Teranga Marine Reserve and the Owhiro Stream.

Colin Crampton’s involvement was transformational and he has remained a very powerful ally in moving things forward. He immediately conceded that monitoring of the outlet and associated points would continue and that data would be readily available, online, to the community.

At a certain point it became plain to both Wellington Water and our community that our interests were more closely aligned than we first thought. The Wellington City Council had been peeling off hundreds of millions of dollars of rates nominally gathered for water but redirected to other activities, a practise that had gone on for decades. This led the water company to being squeezed and having to run assets to breaking point, without having a reasonably-funded asset assessment programme in place. Similarly leak detection capabilities had all but vanished.

Mayoral Taskforce and other break-throughs

A by-product of the media profile I gained was, along with the considerable support of my local councillors, being appointed as the city’s community representative on the Mayoral Task Force on the Three Waters, convened in the wake of the spectacular pipe failures the capital suffered in early 2020, closing part of downtown Wellington for weeks and seeing hundreds of thousands of litres of sewage pouring into the Harbour Capital’s bay. The report, endorsed and released by Mayor Andy Foster in December, is well worth a read.

Through the Taskforce process, I supported Three Waters reform initiatives that the Government were advancing, including moving assets out of council control and the move to bigger regional entities. I also advocated strongly entrenchment of public ownership, and for the adoption of domestic water metering and volumetric charging as important parts of green infrastructure. (Not exactly radical on my part).

What we achieved in the course of 2020, as a community, a residents association, as water activists in our catchment and, eventually, with the significant participation of Wellington Water and the Regional Council was:

Permanent monitoring and online reporting of water quality at the stream mouth and several associated points; and a major expansion of data shared by Wellington Water.

A Wellington Water-Community action group, led by WWL’s Group Network Manager Jeremy McKibbin and Group Manager Strategy and Planning, Julie Alexander, and myself to make fundamental progress in the catchment in terms of faecal contamination.

Owhiro being the first catchment targeted by Wellington City Council’s Roving Crews – to be operationalised in early 2021 to progressively investigate an entire catchment to detect the source of all leaks in the public and private networks.

The creation of the Owhiro Catchment Pilot: a multiparty working group comprising top management from Wellington Water, Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, Regional Public health as well as community and mana whenua representation. The pilot is designed to address the restoration of the catchment in line with the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management 2020 and other benchmarks of ecological well-being such as the Macroinvertebrate Community Index, and to act as a proving ground for better restoration, investigation and remediation processes. What we learn together will be transferred and repeated across the region in the coming years.

The launch and completion of the Water That Counts pilot, initiated by the regional council’s GM Environment Alistair Cross, run through Creative HQ in Wellington and funded by the Government’s Tech Accelerator Programme. The pilot, using Owhiro Bay and its community as its reference, is designed to create an online environment where water-related data for a catchment can be shared by multiple agencies and the community. It was launched independently by Greater Wellington after I tabled a paper with them, with Wellington Water and with the Mayoral Task Force, challenging them to do just this. The platform will include water safety data such as leachate, enteroccoci and e-coli levels. Monitoring data, until now spread all over the place, can be aggregated, and important information relating to the catchment such as resource consents, discharge management plans and reports on investigation and repairs can be publicly accessible. This project will be operationalised in the course of 2020 (or, at least, it better be!) Within as short a time as possible, it will expand to include all the region’s major catchments.

A commitment by Wellington City Council, to ensure beach sampling sites and reporting meet community expectations. Wellington Regional Public Health are still dragging the chain in a shameful manner but will in the coming months be forced to conduct a serious review of the City’s chosen LAWA bay watch sites. It will assess the risk that the misplacement of beach monitoring sites and therefore misreporting of contamination levels poses to public health.

The Mayoral Taskforce Report on the Three Waters which was tabled and applauded by Wellington City Council. It contains a number of recommendations that address the Owhiro Pilot and its importance to informing city and region-wide improvements to our waterways and bays.

Everything I experienced last year confirmed the old saying: it’s Outsiders who change the world. Radicals, even mellow, corduroy-wearing ones like me, have the kind of insurgent energy that is rare within companies and halls of power.

I have found that there is a serious, a really serious lack of Mission-Oriented Thinking inside the regional council, the city council and the water company. The more I learn, the more I realise how little serious planning, investigating, analysing and fixing is going on. It represents a comprehensive failure of responsibility by all three organisations and their governors. It has been facilitated by a culture of secretiveness or, at the very least, appalling systems of public scrutiny.

In all of this, Wellington is sadly typical of much of the country. The good news for us is that Wellington Water, the regional council and the city council have made some exemplary recent progress in starting the cultural, organisational, regulatory and funding changes that are so necessary. The coming year’s work by the Multiparty Working Group on the Owhiro Catchment will be the acid test of collective commitment and competence.

Disquieting questions

Activists around New Zealand tell me what we experienced in Wellington is the same or worse where they are. I have learnt so much from inspiring people like Marnie Prickett, Dame Anne Salmond, Guy Salmon, Mike Joy, the Drinkable Rivers team in Canterbury and excellent advocates closer to home like Martin Payne, Bryce Johnson and the team at Water New Zealand. The similarities of all our experiences provokes some disquieting questions.

How have cross-connections been allowed to proliferate over decades? Why didn’t the companies have the courage to hit the alarm button when funding was calamitously inadequate? Why are regional councils so consistently poor at giving meaningful effect to the RMA’s clear guidance on discharge of contaminants into the environment? Why the nationwide culture of secrecy? Why have water companies throughout New Zealand been slow-coaches at adopting the kinds of Smart Water technologies that have been revolutionising performance in the best-performing countries and American states? Why are our water companies so poor at data analysis and customer service compared to other utilities?

Seriously, how on earth, was the desecration of our waterways and beaches allowed to continue under the watch of water companies, regional councils and city councils for so long? What is wrong with our collective culture that we allowed this? Why are we painfully disorganised in terms of sharing data and research programmes?

Where is the national level research centre on water that is actively investigating the best smart water technologies, the best digital applications, the best practises for solving water, and sharing this across all water companies?

Why have we allowed shambolic and dysfunctional relationships between territorial authorities, councils and water companies to go on so long? Where was the leadership? The governance? Why is it taking so long to build effective co-governance processes, bring mana whenua and community leaders to the decision-making table? Why were so many councils allowed to “rob” the rates that should have been ring-fenced for water? Why do we always talk about Three Waters and conveniently forget freshwater and coastal marine?

Scrutiny is a tool for process improvement

Access to information is where all of this can start to be sorted. The first bit of Latin I learnt as a child was: sapientia potentia est – knowledge is power. Information is so precious that people in public companies keep as much of it as possible to themselves.

The deep irony is that if – and we will – learn to share information, Fixing Water will get so much easier. The more the community knows, the better for everyone. It applies pressure, water pressure … knowing in detail how polluted your stream or bay is or how little is really being done to fix it energises people to push for change … which translates into more money for water companies.

Our job is to say “No! This situation cannot continue. Change must come. Now!” And more democracy everywhere, please.

Here in Wellington a lot of people seem to be starting to accept that public scrutiny, public access to data and public participation in decision-making are needed to build momentum for real change. I applaud the real steps that have been taken by Wellington Water, WCC and the Regional Council over recent months. Their important work should be studied, emulated and improved on.

My advice to water companies and councils nationwide is to look at what is happening around them; don’t be frightened or antagonistic but reserve places at your tables for the community representatives who are pushing for change. Councillors and mayors aren’t enough. Board members aren’t enough. Open the door. Engage. Revolutionise your data sharing. We are starting to build effective processes and relationships and I really hope what we learn can help us all protect water, our most precious resource.

Eugene Doyle is a resident of Owhiro Bay. His article first appeared in the latest issue of Water, the industry magazine published by Water New Zealand.


  1. Benoit Pette, 1. April 2021, 11:26

    Thank you Eugene for this piece. As an activist myself, quite engaged in my community, I was curious to read your journey, its ups and downs.

    I really relate to one of your conclusions: “I have found that there is a serious, a really serious lack of Mission-Oriented Thinking inside the regional council, the city council and the water company”. We face exactly the same problem with all airport-related issues. While it is a stone in the Council’s shoes (you know, this annoying climate change thing that contravenes the airport expansion plans), there doesn’t seem to be any driving force anywhere to manage the airport’s place in our city and steer it in the direction that remains beneficial to the community. It is pretty much left on its own. It requires consequently an immense effort from the community to keep it in check, something that is effectively a Council prerogative.

    So, in short, thank you for giving the Council an “inside view” of what their lack of action costs to the people who are pushing for the greater good.

  2. Regan Dooley, 1. April 2021, 12:08

    This is really great piece of advocacy. All power to you Eugene. My interests lie in other areas but I really relate to a lot of this. Nga mihi maioha

  3. Derek Wilshere, 1. April 2021, 12:40

    This is a fine piece Eugene, and thanks for your persistence. It is gratifying to see the positive and enlightened response of the three agencies involved.

    I look forward to the continuation of this response to all catchments around the region and with strong reference to those and point sources feeding into Te Whanganui a Tara which is in a parlous state largely unrecognised.

  4. Joolzz, 2. April 2021, 21:39

    Hands up who voted for the fourth Labour government and/or the Bolger/Shipley governments/John Key’s government? If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, then hang your heads because their policies essentially trashed what was until the 1980s a world-class infrastructure. Hard to believe today but our energy sector was once the envy of the world, thanks to a much-maligned, but sorely missed government department called the Ministry of Works.

    People only ever saw the road maintenance part of the MoW and thought that’s all they ever did. Idiots. Yes it cost us $$, but look around at the roads, bridges, tunnels, rail that were built yonks ago by government and council works departments. In most cases they’re still standing and serving us well.

    Fact is, our Green mayor Celia Wade got rid of the country’s last council ‘Works’ department – who a reliable source told me had between them 500 years of experience, fixing things like – hey, broken pipes! A neo-lib on a bike that one.

  5. Michelle Laurenson, 3. April 2021, 1:58

    Ditto Eugene! And sincere thanks to your great work and those involved in ‘Water that Counts” and the “Taskforce Report”. Titahi Bay also has concerning health & safety issues due to poorly funded and over-capacity stormwater and Wastewater network and Treatment Plant and a recent Public Hui with Porirua Council, Wellington Water and Ngāti Toa provided a good space for important kōrero. The momentum from key people like Eugene and those mentioned above has triggered the need for data and accessible data. This transparency is necessary for accountability as to date the system has protected those responsible.

  6. Ross Clark, 8. April 2021, 22:54

    Thus, the blame seems to sit far more with the councils than with the water companies, by the councils creaming off monies to pay for things that they (the councils) dare not raise the rates for. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.


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