Friday, 07 August 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Unlikely TCDC will be prosecuted for breach of Whitianga water consent

It is unlikely that Thames-Coromandel District Council will be prosecuted for breaching their resource consent to supply water to Whitianga during last summer’s prolonged drought. This confirmation was provided to The Informer after councillors heard at a full council meeting on Tuesday from Whitianga Residents and Ratepayers Association chair, Len Salt, that Waikato Regional Council “was not impressed” with TCDC.

The Whangamaroro River is Whitianga’s sole source of water. Under a consent TCDC obtained from WRC in 2006, up to 8,000m³ of water can be taken from the river on a daily basis to supply the town. The consent stipulates that less water must be taken if the flow of the river falls below 643l per second. When the flow drops to below 440l, TCDC is technically required to stop taking any water. TCDC continued to take water despite the fact that the flow was below the required minimum for most of the summer (and well into autumn). The consent is expiring in 2025.

A total watering ban came into force in Whitianga on 30 December last year and remained in place until 28 May, when the ban was eased to the use of sprinklers, hoses and irrigation systems on alternate days. The alternate days restriction was relaxed to a “conserve water” status on 11 June.

“[WRC] is at the point in the conversations I’ve had with them that they are starting to get grumpy about the fact that TCDC had a consent [to take water from the Whangamaroro River] for 14 years and haven’t done anything about improving or changing the [Whitianga] water supply or putting in place an alternative water supply,” Mr Salt told the councillors.

“Now, what that means for TCDC is that TCDC runs the risk of being fined or sanctioned, or court action by WRC. I’m sure that’s not something that this council wants to risk, but it needs to be taken seriously.”

Mr Salt also referred to the fact that a proposal in the Mercury Bay Community Board’s recent submission on TCDC’s draft Annual Plan for the 2020/2021 financial year to allocate $150,000 towards an investigation into a more secure water supply for Whitianga was not agreed to by the councillors.

According to Laurna White, TCDC’s Economic Development and Communications Group Manager, the Mercury Bay Community Board proposal is a new project and should be dealt with through the Long Term Plan process. “The process for the TCDC Long Term Plan 2021-2031 is due to commence shortly and if the request for funding is approved, an initial investigation of the water options can be conducted,” she said.

One of the Mercury Bay Ward councillors on TCDC, Tony Fox, confirmed that a proposal to investigate the better conservation of water and alternative water sources will most likely form part of the Long Term Plan 2021-2031, but all of TCDC’s water supply schemes will be looked at, not just Whitianga.

When The Informer enquired from WRC with regard to their position on TCDC’s breach of their consent to supply water to Whitianga, Resource Use Manager, Brent Sinclair, said they were aware of the breach. “TCDC kept us informed of the challenges they were facing at the time to ensure the essential water needs of the Whitianga community were met,” he said. “From what we understand, TCDC took all reasonable steps to manage water demand, including moving to the highest water restrictions available, to minimise the extent of non-compliance while still providing for… essential needs.

“When the resource consent was granted about 14 years ago, it was WRC and local iwi expectation that TCDC would put in place a long-term strategy to manage the risks during periods of low rainfall. This does not appear to have happened and that is disappointing. TCDC needs to address this issue, to ensure they have resilience within their water supply system when these circumstances arise, otherwise they may well find themselves in the position again where they are unable to comply with the consent.  Ongoing non-compliance is simply not tenable.  This is even more relevant as we see changes in rainfall patterns with climate change.”

However, Mr Sinclair said it won’t be in the public interest to prosecute TCDC for breach of their consent. “TCDC took reasonable steps to manage water demand during [the period of drought] to limit the non-compliance while still providing for the essential needs of the Whitianga community, ecological monitoring of the [Whangamaroro River] has subsequently found that effects on stream ecology as a result of the water take were not significant and TCDC maintained contact with WRC throughout the [drought], including informing of the actions they were taking to minimise non-compliance,” he said.

There’s no guarantee that WRC will issue another consent to TCDC in 2025 to continue to take water from the Whangamaroro River, but Mr Sinclair acknowledged that it’s an important water source for the Whitianga community. “The Waikato Regional Plan recognises the importance of such municipal water takes while providing for the needs of the river,” he said. “We expect TCDC will have planned well to address the future water needs for Whitianga.”

Mr Fox said any future planning will take into account the timeframes required and the costs involved. “For example, developing the Waiwawa River at Coroglen into a second water source may take a long time,” he said. “To get the water to Whitianga may well require the installation of infrastructure across a large number of privately-owned properties. To get the consent of everyone involved, will not happen overnight.

“Likewise, if we install reservoirs across the Coromandel to ensure 90 days’ storage capacity for all TCDC’s water supply schemes, we’ll be looking at an amount north of $1 billion. If we take into account the reservoirs will have a limited lifespan of, say, 50 years, then we’re looking at a rating impact of at least $6,000 per year per property. I’m not sure many people will be able or willing to wear that.

“We need to remember that the water restrictions during summer weren’t the result of unchecked growth and development. The maximum limit of the TCDC resource consent to take water from the Whangamaroro River is substantially more than what Whitianga uses during peak holiday periods and there’s no capacity shortage at the town’s new water treatment plant either. What we’ve had is a significant drought, the worst in more than 20 years. It made us all realise that water is a finite resource, which is something we need to keep front of mind when we plan for the future.”

According to Mrs White, the most cost-effective solution at the moment is to maintain the “conserve water” status in Whitianga while longer term options are being investigated as part of the Long Term Plan 2021-2031 process. “Water meters and on-site storage will form part of the process,” she said.

Coromandel-Colville Ward councillor, John Morrissey, asked Mr Salt at the full council meeting on Tuesday last week for his views on water meters. Mr Salt responded that, in his view, water meters are inevitable, but the burden of water rates has to be distributed fairly between permanent and absentee ratepayers.

Mr Fox is in agreement with Mr Salt. “Undoubtedly water meters will lead to an improvement in the conservation of water,” he said. “But a form of availability charge will have to be passed on to all property owners to ensure permanent residents do not end up paying disproportionately towards the cost of supplying water to Whitianga.”

Pictured: The Whangamaroro River, the sole source of Whitianga's water supply, on Monday this week.

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.