WCC water crisis proactive meeting results in PR fail; is the water issue going to be swept under the next long-term plan rug?

While it was a positive step by the Mayor and Councillors to hold an urgent meeting concerning the ongoing sewage and water issues, Wellington is fast becoming the City of Fountains; it was let down by a lack of a plan and poor PR.

Many questions remain in the ongoing water crisis that is currently enveloping the city. It’s taken the Council some weeks now to respond proactively, but it’s far from over. Even as the meeting yesterday ended, yet another water main burst. So many now it is hard to keep track of but by my count the ninth in three weeks.

TLDR; If the Press Release reflects the actual contents of the meeting held yesterday then you can expect the issues of water and wastewater to be swept under the carpet until the next long term planning round with no other action apparent in the intervening period. Worse, the press release seems to have some incredibly confusing figures in it, which do not appear to correlate to reality. That is very concerning, because if true, then it shows a potential failure of governance.

Let’s dissect the press release that the WCC spin machine spat out late yesterday.

Today’s meeting with senior representatives from Wellington Water was constructive and focussed on solutions to the problems that have recently beset the city’s water infrastructure, says Wellington mayor Andy Foster. “There was full disclosure of the issues and some free and frank discussion on the way forward.

“Wellington Water tabled a number of proposals to address the issues and many of those seem, at first glance, to have merit. For example, they acknowledged not having a complete understanding of the state of the water network and proposed an enhanced programme of condition assessment.

Translated this means that there was no shouting between the 20% owner of Wellington Water, the WCC. What is worrying is that WW doesn’t have a great view of the network and an “enhanced programme of condition assessment” really means “we need to figure out what we are working with.” Typical PR spin, call it for what it is please, rather than wasting words to make it sound like some modern flash-harry process.

“Many of the ideas proposed would require additional funding if agreed, which the Council would need to consider carefully. The Council already invests around $180 million per year (averaged over 10 years) on the three waters, and that figure is scheduled to increase in coming years. So our first obligation to ratepayers is to ensure that money’s being efficiently spent, a point that Wellington Water acknowledged.”

This is classic WCC spin. You read that, and you think that the WCC is spending $180m per annum on the three waters, but it’s not true. I can’t figure out if “averaged over ten years” means $18m per year and whether that is an operational cost or capital cost. The WCC should break that down and explain it because figures I have seen don’t correlate to that figure in any way, shape, or form.

If we look at the 2019 / 2020 annual plan we start to see some more fact-based funding information.

Major upgrade projects on the water system come in at around $24m. That’s the new reservoir and upgrades of stormwater pipes in Tawa.

We also see the WCC practice of deferring works to outer years. The Bell Road reservoir was pushed to an outlying year as was an upgrade to the Kilbirnie stormwater pump station. Also pushed into outer years was an investment in managing the sludge that ends up in the landfill from the sewage system.

However, despite deferring funding, the WCC increased water and sewage rates 2.8% and 1.4% respectively. Network maintenance of both water and sewage is roughly set at just $6.5m per annum. A tiny sum in the scheme of things.

So where does the $180m come from? Because there is zero correlation in the annual plan in relation to that, even by stretches of the wildest imagination.

Wellington Water also stressed that it was not simply a matter of past underfunding – but that community expectations in terms of preventing pollution and keeping our streams, harbour and coastal waters clean have risen massively in recent decades.

“What was acceptable in, say, the 1950s, 60s and 70s is not acceptable now – the community is much more concerned about the quality of water going into our streams and the harbour. And water conservation is clearly a major concern for us all now.”

What an idiotic statement. We have, since the dawn of time, wanted potable drinking water, waste management to prevent disease, and to keep our waterways in general safe to use. Having poisons, paint, leachate from landfills, raw sewage, and other nasties in our environment is entirely unacceptable. Of course, the legislation has moved over time, to align with what people have always wanted.

Mayor Foster says many of these issues arise out of decisions made decades ago and potentially the plan is very long term as well.

“Wellington Water has undertaken to provide advice for the City Council’s next Annual Plan and 2021/31 Long-term Plan – in terms of recommended spending on infrastructure – including costings on establishing a ‘no spills’ wastewater network.”

Translated, don’t expect a fix anytime soon. Also, they would do that anyway as part of the usual process. Perhaps this time around the WCC will be looking at not what they can defer into outlying years, but what they can bring forward.

Wellington Water also agreed that it can do better in terms of informing the community about faults, leaks and other issues.

“We all acknowledge that Wellington Water is under pressure at the moment, particularly in terms of the works in Wallace Street and Willis Street and dealing with other incidents across the region – not just in Wellington City.

“We’ll also aim to make arrangements with the Regional Council, Regional Public Health, local iwi and other interested parties to improve lines of accountability, responsibility and communication.”

Great. What does that look like, when will it be implemented, and how will it be monitored?

For its part, the Wellington City Council will need to consider how to fund any additional work that is agreed, in a way that is sustainable.

How about putting some of the CAPEX that is tagged to vanity projects into core infrastructure instead? You don’t need a rocket scientist to figure that out.

While we are building a $160m convention centre that is of dubious value, our water system is blowing apart. While we hold onto the pipedream of an airport extension in the tens of millions of dollars, we are trucking sewage around the city and spilling it into our waterways.

What we need is an ongoing “crisis” type situation until we have a clear period where water is not erupting from the streets. And, that crisis should persist until a) we’ve fixed the central city sewage issue and b) have the pipes from Moa Point to the landfill back in action.

That’s a once a week meeting followed by clear updates and total transparency until the situation is at a minimum stabilised. Not a one-off, closed to the public meeting, that is then spun out by the PR machine.

It’s not good enough. We deserve better. I would be very interested to hear whether Wellington Water has been warning the Council, or not, about impending issues and potential lack of investment leading to issues. Those with a penchant for the LGOIMA process could perhaps start digging around reports that have been provided to the WCC and other Councils by Wellington Water over the past few years.

Finally. If you want some extra reading on just how Wellington investment in water compares to other parts of the country, then this article in the Dominion Post today has some excellent data.