Wellington's water woes blamed on funding problems

4:50 pm on 29 January 2021

Wellington's mayor says he is seeking answers after a wastewater pipe broke and a burst water main created a massive geyser in the capital this week.

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Wellington City Mayor Andy Foster says more money is needed to fix the ageing water and wastewater network. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Mayor Andy Foster said the company managing wastewater and drinking water, Wellington Water, did not appear to have enough funding.

The council had been collecting money for repairs to the ageing water network, Foster said. However, some of this had gone into other water projects, such as a new reservoir and sewage treatment plant, rather than being used for replacing antiquated pipes.

"The pipes are getting older and for one reason or another, Wellington Water has not been getting adequate funding to be able to do the work it needs to do," Foster said.

"We will make sure we ring fence money for renewals… so we are starting to get on top of this, rather than running to catch up."

Yesterday, a water main burst, sending a rush of water down central Wellington's Aro Valley.

On Monday, a broken wastewater pipe under the ground produced a foul stench near the Civic Square area of downtown Wellington.

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Workers fix the broken wastewater pipe near Wellington's Civic Square. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Foster said more money was also needed for an assessment of the condition of the ageing water network.

"When we started to have problems at the beginning of last year - very, very public problems - I moved very quickly to set up a mayoral task force… and to put more money into the budget for a condition assessment.

"What became apparent is it was being done 10 years ago - in fact we were very insistent that it get done - and that's dropped off the radar screen.

"That means we don't know enough about the condition of the assets under the ground."

Foster acknowledged the council had been advised the sewage pipe that burst on Monday was a critical part of the infrastructure that needed to be replaced, but funding to fix it could not be accessed.

"This is not a conscious decision the council as an elected body has ever made. The council has never said 'no' in my entire time in council to any investment request from Wellington Water.

"It's just sometimes these requests are not getting to the council - we might have a look at why that was," Foster said.

He planned to meet with staff from Wellington Water today and to focus on plans for fixing the pipes in the central business district, he said.

Wellington businesses had been using water metres, but these were also needed in people's homes, Foster said.

"Across the city as a whole, we're using significantly more (water) than Auckland, where it's metred."

Having residential water metres would help to detect leaks in the system, he said.

There was a spike in pipe breakages in Wellington six months after the Kaikoura earthquakes, but it was unclear whether earthquakes had contributed to problems with the city's water network, Foster said.

Wellington Water chief advisor drinking water Laurence Edwards said the burst water main created a 20m geyser in Aro Valley yesterday, but did not cause any injuries.

"It did create a big geyser, a lot of debris washed down the road, and I understand there's been a bit of a plume in the harbour as a result," Edwards said.

"When a pipeline of that size goes, there's a fair bit of surface flooding and of course it's very high profile."

The pipe was 350mm in diameter and had been installed in 1926, he said.

"It's a bit too early to say what caused the break, but we will do an assessment as part of our follow-up work."

It took Wellington Water about an hour to get a crew to the burst water main, Edwards said.

"I understand much of the flooding has happened in the carriageway and one garage was impacted," he said.

"The good news is there's been no impact on customer service from a water supply perspective."

Wellington was beleaguered with similar problems to those that struck this week, when a pipe broke and sewage spilled into the harbour in December 2019.

Multiple problems with broken sewage pipes also the city in 2020.

This week, inner city workers said they were sick of waiting for problems with the water and wastewater system to be fixed.

The Village Goldsmith owner Ian Douglas said he had lost customers because of the smell from the burst pipe over the road.

"From a retail perspective it's a disaster when you have ... 20 metres outside your front door, essentially an open toilet," Douglas said.

Wellington Water chief executive Colin Crampton said workers had successfully diverted leaked sewage from the burst wastewater pipe on Monday, so that it did not enter the harbour.

"The issue is around the asset. They were put in in the early 1900s and those are coming to the end of their lives," Crampton said.

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