Concerns I have about Waikato River diversion to supply Auckland

A plan to divert more water from the Waikato River is the subject of renewed political attention as Auckland continues to battle a drought. But it may not be as straight forward as National and New Zealand First want.
Some people will be concerned about the attempt to take water from the Waikato River and send it to Auckland. I am too. But not for reasons you might think. The Waikato River discharges an average of 340,000 litres every second – 1 cubic metre is 1,000 litres. This attempt at diverting water from the river and sending it to Auckland will take a bit more than 0.5% of the river’s daily discharge. The media deliberately used the number 200 million litres because it sounds big. Hydrologists measure river flow in cubic metres per second.
My concern does not stem from the water being taken, but from the fact that Auckland really needs to learn to be more economic with its usage of its water resource. I am also concerned that fast tracking this through the Resource Management Act process sends the wrong signals about water use. It is also likely to further challenge Tainui’s Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown about the conditions of use of water from the Waikato River – in January Tainui accused the Crown of breaking the Treaty settlement.
 A lot of people south of the Bombay Hills will find it frustrating that Auckland is applying to accelerate the Resource Management Act process, when this is not so much about creating new jobs as saving ones that might be lost from inept water usage. It is also irksome because other provinces such as Canterbury, Otago and Hawkes Bay are used to much drier climates and have learnt to manage their water use. And with climate change, those provinces are expected to dry out further.
We are one of the least efficient users of water in the western world. We take it too much for granted. The decline of our natural water ways in significant part stems from excessive diversion of water for irrigation, from our urban penchant for nice green lawns and so forth.
I am no fan of privatizing a resource that fundamentally I do not believe can be privatized. However one of the negative things we are at risk of inflicting upon ourselves is having to develop a market for water. No one owns water and I believe nor should anyone try to. The water cycle and the common characteristics of the cycle, as well as the universal need of every human being for clean drinking water, mean like the air we breathe.
But before I support Auckland’s bid to make the R.M.A. process go quicker, Auckland needs to have a hard look at its water usage. There are things it could do more immediately such as look for system leakage; people can check their shower nozzles to see if they are working properly; check whether their water mains are at an appropriate water pressure.

Auckland’s water crisis not the first

I was on holiday in August 1994 in Auckland with my brother. We were staying at the house of a mate who had his first years of life just up the road from myself and my brother.

Despite my memory of that holiday being distinctly of passing showers, at times heavy, every single day we were there Auckland was officially in drought. The reservoirs in the Hunua and Waitakere Ranges were low, with their bell mouth spillways well and truly high and dry. And the mother of my mate had to go warm up buckets of water to put in the bath when we needed a wash as showers were not recommended.

Fast forward 22 years to March-April 2017 and here we are again. Auckland coming out of another major crisis where people were forced to ration water. This one was a bit different though because the water supply is actually quite plentiful and the reservoirs were near brimming. The problem was that the sheer volume of run off into the reservoirs from several huge downpours, each one being many days worth of rain landing in the space of a couple hours – thunderstorms being a major source of the trouble – dumped a huge volume of sediment in the catchments of the dam, thus significantly increasing the volume of sediment being processed at Auckland’s treatment plant.

Whilst the rain fall was not stoppable, I wonder how much of the silt content in the run off had from excess felling of stabilising vegetation in that catchment. In a sort of sub tropical climate surrounded by water both north and south of the isthmus, with substantial hills to the west, Auckland is our wettest city with 1200mm on average per annum (currently at 531mm for the Shelley Park gauge in Howick for the year to date).

But Auckland has a water supply issue both in terms of volume and water quality. Many kilometres of pipe needs replacing as a matter of urgency. The volume of water leaking out of them is unknown, which makes metering a problem. And it is compounded by the need to replace or upgrade the treatment plant itself in the near future, as it is old and cannot cope with cyanobacteria and algae problems.

In the future, the current infrastructure is expected to be servicing another 700,00 people in the next 30 years according to one report. Pipes feeding Auckland from the treatment station are going to require significant additional investment. Being able to fund the large investment will create issues with Aucklanders rates.

So it will be interesting to see how Auckland copes with these significant challenges. But you cannot blame the weather for all of their water issues.

Middle class New Zealand being priced out of Auckland?

You might be a policeman. Perhaps you are a teacher at the local primary school. Or what about a nurse working at the hospital. The place you call home is in Mount Eden and the rent for it per week swallows two thirds of your weekly income. What is left is chewed up by food, transport and common expenses. Going out even once a month is expensive. Your partner is no better off and for want of starting a family you are starting to realize that you cannot make ends meet in Auckland, despite loving the city climate, culture and attractions.

Sound familiar?

Auckland businessman and Chair of Vector and a senior partner in KordaMentha, Michael Stiassny believes Auckland is becoming unsustainably expensive for the middle class worker. He is right. A modest house with three bedrooms should not cost $1,000,000. Nor should rent be so high that particular socio-economic classes are priced out of the city, for without them essential services necessary for the maintenance of life in a modern city would not be provided.

I cannot see a City Councillor, a multi-national company C.E. or Minister of the Crown cleaning hospital corridors or teaching pre schoolers. I cannot see them patrolling the streets at stupid hours of the night or day running the risk of running into someone high on methamphetamine making an arse of himself, who may turn on them with a knife. But people have to do these jobs. And in order for people to do those jobs they must be able to live somewhere they feel safe, be able to afford the basics of life.

In other countries with similar problems, populist politics is on the march because of it. In Australia, the United States, England and elsewhere parties claiming to be working for the common person are gaining in the polls because of disenfranchisement among the voting population with the mainstream parties. The manifestations vary considerably – in the United States, Donald Trump might be standing for President as the Republican nominee, but his rejection of establishment politics has caught the imagination of millions of Americans.

In New Zealand, populism has not caught on in the way it has in the United States. However, that is most certainly not to say it does not exist. The rise of New Zealand First, under Winston Peters in the polls, is a result of growing angst at the establishment parties of National and Labour. The unaffordable nature of buying/renting in Auckland, the costly rental market in other major urban areas, and the problems with accommodation in post-earthquake Christchurch have combined to make housing a potential election winner for the right party.

The housing market might be overheated beyond Auckland, but it is there that voters will make their feelings most loudly known on election night 2017. A failure to fix Auckland’s market might well decide the election.

Auckland’s sustainability issue

Each year 40,000 people move to Auckland. That is the equivalent of the entire population of Timaru – every man, woman and child arriving in a calendar year. They all need a house to live in. That house needs by law electricity, running water, sewerage disposal and a driveway. All of these have to be integrated with the larger electricity, water supply, sewerage and roading networks. Each house will create it’s own waste and leave behind an ecological footprint.

If all people in the world consumed the resources of the average New Zealander, we would need 94% of another Earth size planet.

How does this affect our biggest city? Auckland’s sprawl is eating up farmland that will never be recovered. Where was once acres of grazing land south of Titirangi two decades ago is now residential sprawl. I remember visiting relatives in the east Auckland suburb of Howick, an upper class area in 1998. Then the land only a few kilometres to the south was still farmland used for grazing animals and cropping. Now it is all urbanized and the particular area I remember is a large shopping complex. Auckland is forecast to have a population of 2.0 million people by 2030, which would mean possibly 40-45% of New Zealand’s total population living in one area.

This creates some serious infrastructural and environmental challenges for planners:

  • How to dispose of the waste of so many people in an environmentally responsible manner
  • How to reduce traffic congestion on already heavily congested routes – simply building more motorways will not work, for with motorway comes more urban sprawl
  •  Will a desalinization plant or another pipeline from the Waikato River be needed to supply adequate water
  • Where will future electricity for Auckland come from

This is potentially a national issue, since although there has been an effort to get people to move away from Auckland, many people stay there because they like the climate and it has the most job opportunities of any New Zealand city. Government and private sector planning also has not done much to encourage people to move to Christchurch, Wellington, Dunedin as many corporates have located their headquarters and some also their operations in Auckland. However, as the squeeze goes on Auckland, more and more may find that they have no choice because their location of choice is simply not affordable.

Auckland’s current trajectory is unsustainable. On its current trajectory I think it will reach a crisis point shortly by 2020, at which point the quality of living in Auckland will start to decline noticeably. That would mean another 160,000 people or roughly 66% the population of Hamilton and about 40% of Christchurch’s total population. When you think about the problems that are experienced right now with planning for Auckland’s future, this is a daunting increase.


The unfolding disaster that is the Auckland Super City

When I was in Papakura for a job interview at Papakura District Council in 2008, the people who were supposed to interview me were running late. When they turned up, one of them, who would be my prospective boss apologized and said that they had been giving the P.D.C.’s submission to the Auckland Super City Royal Commission of Inquiry. They did not tell me what they said but

The Auckland Supercity formed on 01 November 2010 when the Auckland Regional Council, seven District Councils and several City Councils combined to form a “Super Council”. This was in response to concerns raised in the previous decade that Auckland’s large number of councils was hindering the development of Auckland. Some of the critics of the multi-council Auckland were pro-business/pro-National Party, for whom council regulations were deemed philosophically unfavourable.

I have desisted commenting on the Auckland Super City so far as I was not sure until recently how a Super City would work. But now with acute problems very obvious and a host of smaller, interconnected ones just below the surface I can see that the concept is not working as it should. I have never supported the idea of a super council anywhere in New Zealand. However, I wanted to give Auckland the benefit of the doubt and bit my tongue. For me, the biggest problem has been the number of District Councils that exist in New Zealand, and whether or not given the very small populations that some of them service, it would not be better to combine some of the smaller District Councils. This would enable them to pool resources and rate payer funding for infrastructure needs that otherwise might not have been possible without outside input.

So, what is wrong with Auckland?

To be totally honest, quite a lot.

One of the major problems that I have become aware of is the significant number of key recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry that have simply not been implemented, and which might significantly improve the quality of performance by the Auckland Council.

A second problem is the significant change in geographical representation of Aucklanders electorally when their respective councils disappeared did not take into account in an appropriate way, the needs of individual District and City Councils. Were Aucklanders adequately consulted on where the new boundaries would be?

A third problem  is the structure of the Council, with a set of elected boards which have significantly reduced power, and a centrally based council that might not be able to appropriately represent such a big and geographically diverse region. Numerous concerns were raised that too much power was concentrated in the hands of too few.

A fourth problem is the formation of Council Controlled Organizations which are governed by unelected boards, whose formation is allegedly the result of local politicians having not delivered the “results expected of them”. They include Watercare Services Limited and Auckland Transport.

So, what do I suggest?

It would be very difficult, expensive and possibly politically impossible to wind the clock back and implement this properly from the outset. Ideally in my estimate Auckland should have:

  1. Kept its Regional Council
  2. Reduced the number of District Councils to three or four recognizing Auckland’s rural hinterland and that the ratepayers in these areas might not want to be beholden to a single entity run from Auckland
  3. Retained its city Councils, possibly with boundary alterations
  4. If C.C.O’s really had to be introduced, make them answerable to the City Council

However, as I have admitted that is probably not going to work, so I suggest:

  1. Review with a view to implementing those Royal Commission recommendations that were not
  2. Offer Auckland the opportunity to have a binding referendum in 2020 – by then a whole council planning cycle should have been completed
  3. Have an inquiry into the form and function of the C.C.O’s

Or watch this get much, much worse.