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Drought-stricken Auckland relies on WRC

Auckland’s long gorgeous, California-like Autumn was a rare event that couldn’t have come at a better time during the housebound L4 and L3 lockdowns.

However, Auckland Council experienced it differently and by the start of May mandatory restrictions were placed on the city’s residents and commerce during the L2 lockdown, with threats of a $20,000 fine for breaches.

The 2020 dry summer and autumn had followed a long wet winter and spring in 2019. As NIWA says in its 2019 winter overview, out of the six main centres Auckland had experienced the wettest winter. During August it rained for 28 days, matching July which also featured 28 days of rain. The previous rainiest month had been in August 2010 with 27 rain days. This wet winter was followed by a prolonged dry spell from January with more than 77 consecutive days spent in drought or severe drought.

By mid-April, in the middle of L4, the total volume of water stored in the city’s reservoirs in the west (Waitakeres) and south (Hunua) had dropped below 50 percent for the first time since 1994, when the city started using drinking water pumped out from the mouth of the Waikato River and treated in treatment plants in the Waikato and Onehunga.

In 2013, the Auckland region also experienced 58 consecutive days of drought and the council dams dropped to 36 percent full, and Aucklanders were told to stick a brick in their toilet cisterns to save water.
The growth of the city and the resulting demand for water was giving the city a message and in December 2013 Auckland Council placed a resource consent with the Waikato Regional Council to more than double its 150,000 cubic metre daily intake from the Waikato River.

Seven years later, the council is still waiting in a long consent queue as the Waikato Regional Council says there are too many applications for water from the Waikato Rive that, collectively, are more than amount that is able to be allocated under the law.

Auckland mayor Phil Goff says he has written to Environment Minister David Parker asking to change the Resource Management Act so consents can be heard in terms of priority.
Meantime, Watercare is taking close to its daily limit of 150 million litres from the Waikato River and upgrading (due to be completed in August) its water treatment plant alongside the river to take a further permitted 25 million litres a day when the river is above median water level.

A water bore at Pukekohe that previously had quality issues was brought back into service with additional processing units to supply the township and its 25,000 residents.
The Hays Creek Dam in the Hunua Ranges, decommissioned in 2005, was also brought back into use with the reported capacity to provide water for about 50,000 residents in the Papakura area.
The council is also looking at upgrading water from its Mangere Treatment Plant to a potable standard, desalination and reducing water loss through leakage.

As Auckland experiences a severe drought at least every 20 years or less, it will be the Waikato River resource that will protect the water supply well-being of the country’s fastest-growing city with, or without, future unpredictable changes in the local climate.

A perspective on Watercare’s Waikato River consent

Fred Phillips is a natural resource engineer with Agricultural Business Associates and has spent 50 years working with water in the rural and recreational sectors.

With a focus on design and supervision of water supplies and irrigation, at an individual and community scheme levels, he has played a significant role in developing suitable water sources – both surface and groundwater.

As a consultant, he has represented the irrigation sector in the Waikato region, particularly around Waikato Regional Council and its water consenting from the Waikato and Waihou Rivers. Under the council’s consenting rules irrigation is on the bottom of the user priority list.
In November 2019, Fred obtained from the WRC information covering the previous five years about consents and usage of water from the whole of the Waikato region resource.

A significant amount of the telemetered information was clearly incorrect, he says, which meant it was a major task to analyse with some data sets having to be excluded. At the end of the review, he came up with a surprising fact.
Only about 59 percent of the consent-able surface water resource is actually being used, yet the WRC, along with all other Regional Councils, bases its consent allocation and restrictions on the consented volumes, not the actual volume of water being used.
“This is a major difference and means that the current Auckland consent application for more water could easily be accommodated within the 41 percent that is not used.”

Fred has been also petitioning to have the ‘plan’ for river water use changed to take in the fact that the location where Watercare extracts its water from Waikato River is in the ‘tidal zone’.
In his view once the water in a river reaches the tidal zone the water level is driven more by the tide, than by the river flow, so taking water from this zone cannot have any significant effect on the upstream condition of the river and the downstream effect is also minimal.

The opportunity exists to treat tidal zones as special independent zones in their own right.
As it stands with the current Region Plan the Waikato River is treated as a single consented entity from Taupo to the sea.

On the current plan, he adds, for the WRC to allocate more water for Watercare, it will be at the expense of other users. Someone else will be allocated less. And that will be the low priority users, such as irrigation.
“Granting consent for an additional 150,000 cubic metres a day as requested by WaterCare means that consents upstream between Mercer and Taupo will need to be reduced by a total equivalent to that 150,000m3.
“This means that the irrigation consented daily take volumes would need to be reduced by about 25 percent, which is a major deterrent when it comes to updating irrigation systems.”

Fred says he has been in communication with Watercare about the possibility of taking a joint approach to seeking a Plan Change to separate the River’s tidal zone from the mainstem above Mercer, which would mean that a Consent could be granted to meet the growing needs of Auckland city without it having to be at the expense of other users.
If such a proposal was implemented, then it would have the potential to make more water available in the Waipa and Waikato catchments for the growing needs within the Waikato Region.

The Water Allocation Plan is scheduled for review and release in 2023 and Fred believes discussion of these opportunities should be part of the pre-work for that review. It is about thinking through opportunities to provide for the ever-growing demand for water and in a way that preserves or enhances its quality and value.

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