Wellington's water crisis deepens as pollution, leaks and flooding take toll

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin
Photograph: LatitudeStock / Alamy Stock Phot/Alamy Stock Photo

Wellington City Council has alerted Island Bay residents to another burst water pipe, frustrating the city’s residents who are weary of harbour pollution, streets filled with brown sludge and some homes with no water at all.

Since the start of the year the capital has had one water set-back after another. The iconic Oriental Bay was closed to swimmers on some of the hottest summer days due to dangerous levels of pollution, two major city wastewater pipes burst, dozens of homes lost water access, and streets were flooded due to worn-out infrastructure.

Wellington mayor Andy Foster said Wellington’s water pipes were 100 years old and had seen decades of chronic underinvestment by successive councils.

But it is feared the capital’s water woes may be a taste of similar issues to come nationwide, with few New Zealand cities or towns spending money on upgrading tired and over-used water pipe infrastructure, seldom seen as a winner with voters. “We have billions of dollars worth of under investment in this sector,” Wellington councillor Daran Ponter told RNZ. “The issues that we have seen pop up over the Christmas period in Wellington are potentially just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the country as a whole.”

Land, Air, Water Aotearoa [LAWA] monitors the water quality of the capital, and their map on Thursday showed a sea of red at most popular Wellington bathing spots, with the website listing them as “unsuitable for swimming”.

Poor water quality had stopped ocean swimmers venturing out all week, and the frequency and length of water contamination events was frustrating many sea-lovers.

“It’s not safe to swim, which is just heart-breaking, it really upsets me” said Paul Redican, who usually swims daily around the Miramar Peninsula.

On Wednesday an urgent meeting was called in Wellington with media reporting that the escalating complexity of the capital’s water issues had been labelled a “crisis” and a “civil emergency” by local councillors in attendance.

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“[Wellington Water] tried to give an impression that they were in control, but really its pretty clear that the issues are widespread and fundamental,” councillor Fleur Fitzsimons told Stuff.

“Everybody that gave advice in the meeting indicated there had been a historical underinvestment in water infrastructure in Wellington,”

As Wellington City Council issued another water warning overnight of a burst pipe in Island bay, residents said they could no longer keep pace with the rate of closures and incidents, and the situation was becoming “ridiculous”.

“What a horrible summer without being able to swim,” wrote Chantel Mayer on the Wellington City Council Facebook page.

A ban on residential sprinklers and irrigation systems has been in place since last Friday.

Wellington City Council and Wellington Water have been contacted for comment.