28 Jan 2024

Water woes flood silly season as news runs dry

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 28 January 2024

TVNZ's Breakfast show gives Wellingtonians the bad news about their water.

TVNZ's Breakfast show gives Wellingtonians the bad news about their water. Photo: TVNZ Breakfast

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, reports of shark sightings signalled the start of the summer silly season for news. Meanwhile water running out in the capital, unswimmable beaches, sewage smells and a controversial conservation campaign in Auckland all watered down the holiday news drought too.   

The year 2024 was less than two days old when Newstalk ZB’s Tim Roxborogh asked his listeners about shark sightings at the beach - a staple of the annual Kiwi summer news drought. 

He was prompted by former broadcaster Brodie Kane posting on Instagram a mock TV news-style live cross from Mount Maunganui beach, claiming “some people ran for their lives” including a child yelling that the shark was “so big”.

This was reported by papers from coast-to-coast. Even the far-off Otago Daily Times published a picture from the fuzzy footage of a fin in the water. 

But when The New Zealand Herald sought a second opinion, the eastern region manager of Surf Life Saving poured cold water on it. 

“We see them all the time ... it’s pretty standard,” he said. 

Shortly after, Tim Roxborogh moved on to another surefire silly season talkback topic. 

“What are the most dangerous roads?” he asked ZB listeners and calls about highways riddled with puncture-producing potholes poured in.

For two days running in the new year, RNZ’s Summer Report led with local mayors' gripes about the state of State Highway 1.  

But when a story headlined 'Laughing stock' appeared on the RNZ news site, one Mediawatch listener reckoned RNZ was having a laugh with a photo in it sourced from the Northland Potholes Facebook page.

 “This is not State Highway 1. It's Te One Street, Ruakaka,” he said. (SH1 does skirt the Northland town but Te One street’s patchy potholes are not part of our number one road.) 

However, not every mayor was griping at Waka Kotahi - aka the NZ Transport Agency - about potholes this summer.

After State Highway 25a was sliced in two by Cyclone Gabrielle last year, it became a good news story just before Christmas when it reopened ahead of schedule and under budget. 

NZTA made the most of that in social media videos.  

“It's a construction of concrete and steel. Who would have thought people could get emotional about that? Reconnecting those families being able to get back together has been a really big deal for our communities,” said Thames Coromandel District Mayor Len Salt in one of them

But Mayor Salt also ended up in the news for saltier language directed at some elements of his Coromandel community. 

"Go f*** yourself, Kind regards. Len,” was how he signed off an email to one constituent, according to Stuff. 

Salt also told RNZ’s Summer Times show that the emailer was demanding names, addresses and other personal details of councillors and council staff and he believed that individual was associated with the Sovereign Citizens movement. 

Stuff reported the email said councillors were determined to “coerce, deceive and enslave” local people and should be liable to prosecution.

When Stuff told the unsuccessful mayoral candidate who made the mayor’s sweary email response public that Len Salt’s response had been endorsed by some locals on Facebook, his rival told Stuff: 

"But that's Facebook -- where most people have half a brain and are not the smartest.”

Possibly not a vote-winning strategy for a would-be local politician these days.  

The fact that dozens of beaches were off-limits for swimming thanks to sewage slips after heavy rain also hit headlines over the holidays. 

“If you were vehemently opposed to Three Waters, but you're annoyed about poo at the beach and your rates having to go up to fix it, then just have a little wee think about what was going on,” ZB’s Tim Roxborogh told listeners.  

With the new government’s ‘Local water done well’ plan yet to emerge, local government minister Simeon Brown wrote to councils just before Christmas to say he’ll relax consultation and audit requirements so they can lock in their long-term rates and spending plans to cover increasing water costs. 

Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne reported at the time the Far North District Council had pencilled in a 33 percent rates rise for this year - and West Coast councils are planning hikes of more than 30 percent. 

Hamilton’s ratepayers face a 25 percent increase - one of the reasons out-of-towners might have to pay to visit the gardens there.   

“For those that were staunchly opposed to the Three Waters reforms - there must be some ‘oh, crap’ moments now,” Buller’s mayor Jamie Cleine told Newsroom.  

Definitely having an ‘oh crap’ moment in the New Year were the Hutt City Council and the organisers of Juicy Fest music extravaganza, sited perilously close to the misfiring sewage treatment plant at Seaview

Odour produced by the plant was already giving local residents headaches - and headlines were created both here and overseas by a council advisor suggesting local "stop pooing" during the festival.  

Strategic advisor Bruce Hodgins telling a Hutt City Council meeting residents could "stop pooing" to ease the Seaview stench problem.

Strategic advisor Bruce Hodgins telling a Hutt City Council meeting residents could "stop pooing" to ease the Seaview stench problem. Photo: Hutt City Council livestream

That didn’t go down well with festival fans - a bit like the sewage at Seaview, it seems.

While the Seaview smell seems to be under control now, Wellington’s leaking pipes are not. As much as half the water in them is reportedly leaking out before it gets to taps, prompting emergency water use restrictions this summer.  

“We’re currently asking people in the capital city to prepare for a natural disaster which we knew was coming. It’s called summer,” frustrated economist Brad Olsen told BusinessDesk last week. 

The article’s author, Dileepa Fonseka, compared Wellington’s water woes to the Mexican standoff at the end of Reservoir Dogs, where everyone ends up pointing a gun at everybody else. 

“But in the Wellington water version, nobody dies -- everybody just stands around leaking fluids and getting slowly more dehydrated,” he reckoned.  

If not quite Hollywood material, the drama was certainly a good summer story for local media. 

The Wellington region's water woes proved a valuable reservoir of news for the capital's daily paper over the summer break.

The Wellington region's water woes proved a valuable reservoir of news for the capital's daily paper over the summer break. Photo: The Post

Daily paper The Post got several front-page stories out of it. Stuff even ran a live blog on it for a while, featuring readers’ photos of leaks on their streets. 

The looming crisis also prompted Simeon Brown to send ‘please explain’ letters to the region’s mayors, which were made public just half an hour later in a press release. 

Wellington mayor Tory Whanau responded with a press release of her own on 20 January, saying she was “sick and tired” of leaks too - and offering some online links on how to report a leak and how to save water.  

(Plugging the leaks with the plethora of press releases from all parties was not one of the suggestions.) 

“We're going to have the repeal of Three Waters. Are we back to square one? Are you losing the will to live?” Newstalk ZB’s Francesca Rudkin asked Water NZ’s CEO Gillian Blythe last Sunday. 

The head of the country’s largest water industry body said sharing information about the scale of the problem was a sign of progress. Twenty years after the problem first became acute, that wasn't a very reassuring answer. 

“We don't have as much information as we need. And we need to make sure it's transparent,” she added.

The transparency Wellingtonians want is in the form of clear, clean water out of their taps throughout the summer and beyond. 

Auckland had a PR problem too when its water agency, Watercare, pulled an online campaign urging women to take shorter showers. 

“Perpetuating the idea that one gender is wasting time in the shower while the other one is busy changing the oil on the ute or hunting wildebeest with a crossbow isn’t helping anyone,” social media and marketing professional Vaughn Davis said in the Herald.

But on the other hand...

“Piling on when someone messes up only makes things worse, leading to more risk-aversion, more checking, more second-guessing and boring, ineffective communication. As a ratepayer and Watercare customer, I don’t want that either,” he said. 

And more water was the last thing many in Westland wanted last week when heavy rain prompted a local State of Emergency. 

But in a Newshub at 6 report last weekend, one unnamed couple forced to evacuate were taking the 19th inundation of their home in their stride. 

“I mean, we're just sitting here having a couple of beers. Nek minute a bit of a crash, the water had risen, this chair was floating and the dog’s upside down,” they said.  

“In 2019 the water was flowing out the windows. Last night's flood was ho-hum in comparison,” they added with beers in hand, standing in their soggy lounge room.

In this age of rage we seem to be living in, that kind of grace under pressure in the news was refreshing.

Let’s hope for more of that in 2024.