Watercare doesn’t like the publicly accountable way North Shore City Council runs North Shore’s sewers. Behind the scenes, Watercare is attempting to change many of the controls and systems that North Shore City Council has built up over the years which give the public confidence their sewage system is operated to the high standard that has been agreed with North Shore’s ratepayers....
As an ARC Councillor, I have been locked in sewer network resource consent negotiations with North Shore City Council for the past two years. NSCC was required under the RMA to apply for discharge consents to permit - subject to conditions - periodic overflows from its sewer network. These may be caused by very high rainfall and sewer blockages. Poor maintenance and management can increase these problems and their highly visible and disturbing environmental effects which can include beach closures.
When NSCC first applied for consent, ARC commissioners were not satisfied with the conditions and management arrangements proposed by NSCC. So commissioners granted NSCC a very short 6 year permit. NSCC appealed this decision. This resulted in the mediation process. Negotiations have resulted in a much tighter set of conditions which give the public confidence that the operation of the network and its development into the future will meet their requirements for environmental care and health protection.
Mediation concluded successfully two months ago – to the delight of North Shore City Council and ARC. But in recent weeks Watercare has put a legal spanner in the works. Watercare has sat on the sidelines as a section 274 party. Now Watercare is claiming that as it will be the future operator of North Shore’s sewers, it does not accept the publicly agreed controls that have been developed by North Shore City Council, and which have been accepted by ARC as the regulator of discharges.
I am concerned that what Watercare wants will weaken the controls against sewage overflows into the North Shore environment. It will water down public accountability for overflows and sewage pollution. It will split responsibility between Watercare and the Auckland Council – so the public won’t have the same one-stop-shop they have now when there’s a sewage problem. And it will lead to a loss of transparency because Watercare does not want to commit to the same public reporting and monitoring that North Shore City Council has developed a regionwide reputation for.
I have more than a decade’s institutional experience of North Shore’s sewage systems – both from a City Council operation’s point of view and from the Auckland Regional Council’s regulatory point of view.
I was Chair and Deputy Chair of North Shore City Council’s Works and Environment Committee from 1998 to 2004 implementing Project Care objectives to clean up North Shore beaches and inshore seawater from sewage pollution caused by dry and wet weather overflows. And from 2004 to now I have been appointed by Auckland Regional Council as Resource Consent Commissioner deciding exactly how North Shore’s sewage network should be operated and improved under the Resource Management Act to minimise adverse effects on North Shore’s environment. This detailed work has resulted in North Shore City Council and Auckland Regional Council agreeing a 35 year consent to operate the sewage network, subject to conditions and controls which have been negotiated carefully over the past two years.
Watercare is mounting an Environment Court challenge to have many of these controls and conditions deleted.
I have been immersed in North Shore’s sewage systems for years, and what I see happening now, with integration into Watercare, is not a pretty picture.
The following table contains details of selected changes that Watercare is seeking. The table states existing conditions; Watercare's reasons for wanting it changed; what Watercare wants instead; and my comments:
|ARC/NSCC agreed condition||Watercare issue||Change required by Watercare||My comment|
|3. That the consent holder shall minimise wastewater overflows from the wastewater network to the environment.||The condition is not measureable. Note that conditions that cannot be measured effectively are ultra vires.||Delete condition 3.||This is the main condition imposed on NSCC by ARC in exchange for granting NSCC the right to operate the network to reticulate sewage, noting that discharges can happen.|
|6. That the Consent Holder shall minimise wet weather overflows that occur on private properties.||The condition is not measureable….||Delete condition 6.||Wet weather overflows on private properties have been a major issue for NSCC and communities. They are extremely upsetting for homeowners. The reporting that is needed is to simply report on these, and demonstrate over time that they are reducing. This would be associated with reports on methods and resources being deployed.|
|13. The Consent Holder shall operate and maintain the network and any overflows from it in accordance with a Wastewater Network Operations and Maintenance Manual… which SHALL include… a), b) and c).||Watercare will progressively move towards common regional operations and maintenance manuals in the future……it is considered it is the Consent Holders responsibility to meet its consent obligations… without that being detailed in a condition of consent.||Amend condition to more general wording….||These requirements are aimed at minimising dry weather overflows in particular, and also that show how the specific incidents that have redevilled NSCC’s network will be responded to, through very specific operations approaches that have been built up over recent years, and which give community confidence.|
|14. That the consent holder shall use best endeavours to require private connections from dwellings to the public wastewater network to use BPO materials that do not leak.||The condition lacks clarity and provides no certainty as to what the Consent holder must do…. Futhermore private connections are covered by the Building Code over which Watercare has no control.||Delete condition 14.||50% of stormwater infiltration comes from private connections. NSCC routinely pressure tests private connections to ensure they hold water. "Best endeavours" provides for the operator to develop a methodology, how to advise property owner, how to set connection test. Unreasonable to expect Council to do this job, when Watercare can do it as part of providing service.|
|17. That a wastewater network operation, maintenance and capital works programme shall be in place to minimise the occurrence of chokes, exfiltration, inflow and infiltration…||The exact obligations on the consent holder are unclear and cannot be measured…. The Auckland Council will need to control inflow, so any controls will depend on actions taken by the council. This cannot be a condition of this consent.||Delete “inflow”||“Inflow” is the word for illegal rainwater connections to the sewer network. Eg when a homeowner connects the house roofwater downpipe to the sewer. NSCC routinely inspects properties to detect these illegal “inflow” connections and get them changed. It is appropriate for the integrated wastewater service provider to do this inspection as part of the integrated “toilet to WWTP” service. That is an integrated service, for which wastewater charges are levied. Reduced inflows leads to reduced need to increase pipe capacities. It should be core business for Watercare to minimise inflows to the network.|
|22. That the consent holder shall prepare an Integrated Natural Water Monitoring Plan to cover all effects based on monitoring of discharges, infrastructure and receving environment assessments and effects on bathing beach quality. The Monitoring Plan shall specifically include the monitoring and reporting of:a) frequency and duration of pumping station wet weather overflows in each recreation water use area;b) number of advistory notices erected at each recreation water use area in accordance with the Incidence Response conditions…. etc||Bathing beach monitoring, erection of signs and environmental monitoring of receiving environments is a function of the new Auckland Council….||Delete condition||This is a very serious change. Watercare will be in a position to know when its network overflows, when monitoring should occur, testing, and when signs need to be put up. As part of its incidence response plan (as is done now by NSCC). To delete this condition is to absolve itself of a fundamental responsibility, and to transfer all risk to Auckland Council.|
|23. Incidence response. The Consent Holder shall implement and maintain as Incident Response Plan within the Operations and Maintenance Manual… which sets out how the consent Holder will respond to and avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse effects of overflows. (JKC: This contains detailed specifications, which SHALL BE included).||A condition is acceptable. However, detailed requirements as to the contents of this plan is inappropriate….||Watercare free to implement and maintain such a manual, which will be “provided to the manager on request…”||These response details were worked through in detail with Project Care working party, and North Shore community. They are the result of an enormous amount of work and community experience. It is these which give the community confidence that their wastewater network is being maintaining and operated in a way which gives them confidence and knowledge that local wisdom has been incorporated. Losing this detail would be to lose the essence of what built faith and trust between the community and NSCC in regard to wastewater management.|
|24. …At times of dry weather flow, as quickly as possible, and in any case within 1 hour… etc||…the level of detail in this condition puts unncessary constraints on the ability of the Consent Holder to operate the system efficiently.||Amend … "as soon as practicable"…||Dry weather overflows are severe in their impact. This condition was negotiated with NSCC. It is a service level that it has agreed to, and which community expects.|
Watercare wants regional consistency. It ignores the fact that North Shore residents have agreed to pay more for their sewage network to be cleaner and more tightly than the networks run by Waitakere and Auckland City Councils. It ignores the fact that East Coast beaches and beach waters are highly prized and protected from sewage overflows. As are the inner harbour waters of Little Shoal Bay, Shoal Bay and Ngataringa Bay. We don't want regional consistency that weakens wastewater discharge controls on the North Shore.
The pattern in the changes sought by Watercare, is that Watercare will accept responsibility only for the parts of North Shore's sewer network operations that it has complete control over. The integrated "toilet to treatment plant" role currently taken by North Shore City Council will be fragmented if Watercare is allowed to take the easy bits, and leave the rest behind for Auckland Council. The costs for those wastewater services would stay with Auckland Council too.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Watercare is operating as a corporate raider, asset-stripping North Shore's wastewater operation, taking the trunk network with its predictable revenue stream, and leaving behind all the risky loose ends associated with residential connections, as well as avoiding public responsibility for sign-posting its sewage overflows or cleaning them up within agreed timeframes.
However. ARC has not accepted Watercare's proposed changes.
The matter is still in front of the Environment Court.
You would think - would you not - that Auckland Transition Agency would have a view on what Watercare is attempting to achieve here. I look forward to being on the new Auckland Council and ensuring that Watercare does the integrated job that needs to be done with wastewater - overflows, private connections, toilet to treatment plant. The lot.
That's what "one-stop-shops" are for after all.