7 November 2019

Water – Protecting Our Greatest Asset

If Auckland Council’s Penny Hulse had her way, water would replace schooling as the hot topic for dinner party conversations over the next few years. Why? Because water is possibly THE biggest issue Auckland faces in the future. Councillor Hulse says we all need to take ownership of our water and raise the bar – together.


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“Water matters, harbours matter and the state of the water matters. But we have much to do,” she says.

Hulse, who is chair of Auckland Council’s environment and community committee, is thrilled Aucklanders voted overwhelmingly (61 per cent) to support the proposed targeted rate of about $1.30 per week per household to improve water quality at Auckland beaches. The water quality targeted rate sees an additional $452 million committed over the next 10 years. But, she says, the many pressing challenges don’t have quick-fix solutions.

The city’s lakes, rivers, streams and harbours are degraded. Contaminants from cars, sediment from livestock, fertiliser, forests and erosion are washing into waterways, damaging ecosystems and posing risks to human health. Beach closures due to pollution occur almost every time it pours with rain.

The networks that manage our drinking water, wastewater and storm water are also under increasing pressure. Sewage is added to the mix in older parts of Auckland – from St Mary’s Bay through Mt Albert and Mt Eden – where storm water pipes were never originally installed. In these suburbs, when it rains, storm water from roofs and gutters flows into a waste water system designed 100 years ago to flow into Meola Creek.

To ensure the decisions made by councils and other organisations improve our water future, everyone needs to take responsibility and work together. We can’t afford simply to defer the problem for future generations to resolve.

The big fix is the Central Interceptor, a four-metre wide, 13-kilometre-long tunnel that, with related pipework, will take the storm and wastewater from these problem areas to Mangere’s wastewater treatment plant. For that, Watercare is budgeting $1.855 billion during the next 10 years. 

“It’s the backbone needed to upgrade the whole waste water system,” explains Andrew Chin, Auckland’s waters portfolio manager from Auckland Council. “It’s a major project almost on the scale of the Waterview Tunnel. Tenders are out now and it will take about seven years to build.”

Over the next 10 years, the council expects to spend $7.1 billion on diverse water projects of all sizes across the region. But the pressure will continue to increase if changes are not made to the way the environment is valued and managed.

The problem is that each Aucklander uses around 272 litres of water a day. And as our population balloons, the city’s water resources are nearing capacity. Freshwater is becoming scarce, even though it rains frequently.

There are few large rivers, lakes and aquifers in Auckland to draw from. Only 38 per cent of the city’s water supply is sourced from within the region. The rest comes from dams in the Hunua Ranges and from the Waikato River.

Watercare has high hopes of increasing the water taken out of the Waikato River from 150 to 350 million litres a day. In the meantime, it is encouraging Aucklanders to reduce wastage and to think about how we need to look after our most precious taonga/treasure.

It’s a task for everyone, says councillor Hulse. “We can all contribute to a better water future. Take time to think about future generations. We enjoy all these magnificent taonga but they are not ours to mess with.

“We owe it our future generations to treat the sacredness of water as Maori has done in the past. They have guarded it for hundreds of years but we have taken possibly two generations to destroy it.”

In addition, climate changes are leaving the city vulnerable to natural hazards such as flooding, rising coastal sea levels, erosion and droughts. There are 137,000 buildings in Auckland that are prone to some form of flooding.

Historically, harbours and streams were abundant sources of kai (food) for the local people. Waka, ships, ferries and freighters brought trade and prosperity. This allowed Auckland to grow into a city of 1.66 million people. But as the population has grown, we haven’t looked after the waters that have sustained us.

The council’s Auckland Water Strategy aims to create a vision that recognises the vital relationship between our water and our people. The council has taken advice from the Mana Whenua Kaitiaki Forum which has said that te mauri o te wai – the life-supporting capacity of Auckland’s water – should be at the centre of the strategy for rivers, estuaries and harbours to be restored to a state of health. Central to the city’s aspirations is the aim of adhering to the Maori way that links the wai (water) with kai (food).

Renowned Maori astrologer and maramataka (Maori lunar calendar) Maori expert Rereata Makiha says western science is shortsighted as it doesn’t recognise the connection between all life forms.

“When one life form is damaged, so too is another,” he explains. “Maori had really strict protocols around waterways. Water should never be kept; it should always be flowing. Wai and kai are always connected. All our environmental work is based around this.

“Nothing is ever created in isolation. The companion to wai is kai. Get rid of one and the other dies. You protect the wai with the presence of kai. The more you have food in that environment, the healthier the water source is. Kai is the indicator of healthy wai.”

Tame Te Rangi – a representative of the Mana Whenua Kaitiaki Forum – says Aucklanders must continue to strive for a balanced approach that has clear alignment with matters that occur naturally.

“We must adjust our individual thinking to look at our past in that whole cycle as humans and citizens of the world. For a long time, we’ve waited for leadership to come out of academia or forms of philosophy, or from Parliament, and there’s enough evidence to show that now that’s not working. We’re out of balance, out of whack.

“What distinguishes this whole opportunity from other practices is finding balance, harmony and integration.”

Dr Ian Boothroyd, an ecologist with Boffa Miskell, agrees that waterways must be brought back to life. “We’re trying to squeeze more people in. Urban density or sprawl, that’s where the biggest problem is. The biggest risk is the loss of waterways as land gets swallowed up. It’s important to look at the management of those ecosystems. The smaller streams are the capillaries of our larger waterways – the oceans. Targeting and improving on the scores is an important part of our water quality. Bring the mauri back.”

Chin notes that the old-fashioned style of subdivision where you tried to get rid of the water as fast as possible – your back fence backed onto a stream and became a forgotten wasteland where you threw your rubbish – is no more.

“Now we really want to try to make those areas part of the amenity of the suburb.”

The practice of stream daylighting means bringing buried pipes to the surface and restoring natural streams in their place. Naturalised streams offer multiple benefits over pipes, including restored habitats and enhanced storm water management, and they create natural assets for communities to enjoy.

Says Chin: “If you connect people to the waterways in these areas, hopefully they’ll value them more. They're less likely to throw rubbish into them. A really good example is La Rosa Reserve in Green Bay. We daylighted a stream – the park the stream went through was always boggy and there was a lot of anti-social behaviour. When that area was daylighted, it became like a beautiful garden, something the local school connected to, and the incidents dropped. It played on that space where you can value those natural places in your local suburbs.”

Chin says there is a lot going on in Auckland now. “We have some exciting ideas. That’s part of what the targeted rate is opening up. Another idea being explored is creating jobs in communities to maintain the vegetation so people take pride in their streets. Let’s turn the cost into an opportunity to drive the prosperity of our suburbs.

“We know we can turn around water quality – and improve waterways that were dead. Through a long-term management plan, we can get to an end point.”

He says the plan isn’t a quick fix. “It’s a sustained effort and the private individual has a huge part to play in this.”

Auckland’s water is in dire straits. What can you do to help improve Auckland’s water quality?

Councillor Penny Hulse says:

• Don’t listen to those people who say they’re going to save or reduce rates. Because they’ll reduce rates at the expense of our environment
• Vote for people who say they’ll help the environment
• Stand for council
• Start challenging dinner party conversations
• Ask how we actually use water
• Turn off the tap when you clean your teeth
• Don’t waste water. Use eco-cycles
• If it’s yellow, let it mellow
• Visit Auckland’s dams – know where your water comes from and goes to
• Ask how we use subsidies for water tanks
• Get involved. Join your community to plant trees and clean up streams and waterways
• Teach your children to think about the beautiful, precious water we get from the Tainui in the Waikato

Make a submission – offer feedback on the Auckland Water Strategy when the council’s long-term plan goes out for consultation in March. Fill in a submission form available at libraries, service centres and local board offices. Feedback must be received by April 19, 2019. To receive updates about the discussion, sign up here.

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