Local Government Magazine
3 Waters

Confessions and victories of a council activist

owhiro catchment pilot

Wellington’s outspoken Owhiro Bay ‘water activist’, Eugene Doyle, outlines how his vexed relationship with Wellington Water transformed into a collaboration to help clean up the capital’s south coast. 

‘I just thought I’d warn you: you’re about to be attacked in the media.’ 

This phone call was from my local 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 our bay and polluted our stream, as well as their refusal to share data with us.

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 had sent them, cc’d to media. It said; “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.

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 community had been running high since our bay was closed in January 2019 due to enterococci counts hitting hundreds of times the safe-to-swim level through faecal contamination in the Owhiro Stream coming from failing pipes.

Water asset failures had become an almost daily front-page story and we were up to our eyeballs in what I described as a tsunami of faecal matter.

Wellington Water hadn’t liked sharing data, or was 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 around our coastal road and up to the landfill for disposal.

In the coming days, all this argy-bargy would find its way into most mainstream national news outlets. The formidable councillor Fleur Fitzsimons hauled the executives over the coals for their behaviour towards me. My community, including our highly talented and pugnacious residents’ association, rallied around, 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 and as a result, issued a public apology: “Wellington Water apologises for ‘inappropriate’ email rant’, ran the front-page headline. 

I graciously accepted: “Doyle told Stuff [media] 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 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, Wellington Water.

It would prove to be the first of many contacts and the start of a process that, by the end of the year would see 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 led to the contamination of Tapu Teranga Marine Reserve and the Owhiro Stream.

Colin’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 on an ongoing basis 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 actually more closely aligned than we first thought.

Wellington City Council had been peeling off hundreds of millions of dollars of rates nominally gathered for water, but redirected to other activities, a practice that had gone on for decades. This led to the water company being squeezed and having to run assets to breaking point, with no reasonably-funded asset assessment programme in place.

Mayoral Taskforce and other breakthroughs

My heightened media profile resulted in my appointment as the city’s community representative on the Mayoral Taskforce on the Three Waters. This taskforce was convened in the wake of spectacular pipe failures in early 2020 that closed part of downtown Wellington for weeks and saw hundreds of thousands of litres of sewage pouring into the harbour.

The report, endorsed and released by Mayor Andy Foster in December 2020, is well worth a read and is available at: www.wellington.govt.nz/environment-and-sustainability/water/mayoral-water-taskforce.

Through the taskforce process, I supported three waters reform initiatives that the Government was advancing, including moving assets out of council control and the move to bigger regional entities.

I also advocated strongly 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 Greater Wellington Regional Council was the following.

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, group manager strategy and planning Julie Alexander, and myself, to make fundamental progress in the catchment in terms of faecal contamination.

Progressive investigation of the source of all leaks in the public and private networks in Owhiro Bay.

The creation of the Owhiro Catchment Pilot: a multiparty working group from Wellington Water, Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, Regional Public health as well as community and mana whenua representation.

The pilot will 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.

The Water That Counts Pilot, initiated by Greater Wellington’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. The platform covers water safety data such as leachate, enterococci 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 can be publicly accessible.

A commitment by Wellington City Council to ensure beach sampling sites and reporting meet community expectations.

The Mayoral Taskforce on the Three Waters Report 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.

It’s outsiders who change the world

Everything I experienced in 2020 confirmed the old saying; ‘It’s the 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 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. This is often facilitated by a culture of secretiveness or, at the very least, appalling systems of public scrutiny.

The good news for us is that Wellington Water, Greater Wellington, and the city council have made some exemplary progress recently 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 and Bryce Johnson. 

The similarities of all our experiences provoke some disquieting questions. How have cross-connections been allowed to proliferate over decades? Why weren’t alarm buttons hit when funding was calamitously inadequate? Why are so many regional councils consistently poor at giving meaningful effect to the RMA’s clear guidance on the discharge of contaminants into the environment? Why the nationwide culture of secrecy?

Why have so many utilities been slow at adopting the kinds of Smart Water technologies that have been revolutionising performance in the best-performing countries?

Why are our water companies so poor at data analysis and customer service compared to other utilities?

Seriously, how on earth, has the desecration of our waterways and beaches been allowed to continue
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 around the country?

Where is the national level research centre on water that is actively investigating the best smart water technologies, the best digital applications, the best practices 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 interests 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.

If the information is shared, fixing water will get so much easier. The more the community knows, the better for everyone. Knowing how polluted your stream or bay is or how little is being done to fix it energises people to push for change. This translates into more money for water companies.

Our job, as water activists, 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 Greater Wellington 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 not 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, a precious resource.

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