Un­swimmable Auck­land

Why our beaches are swim­ming in shit, and what the coun­cil is do­ing to fix it.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — TESS NICHOL / IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS — CHIPPY

Why our beaches are swim­ming in shit, and what the coun­cil is do­ing to fix it.

In the evening, the New­mar­ket Stream smells like shit. Not the whole length of it, but if you wan­der through the gully down by New­mar­ket Park and trace the wind­ing track to the over­flow point at what is ap­pro­pri­ately known as Hells Gate, there are mo­ments when the scent on the breeze is un­mis­tak­ably that of hu­man shit. And, un­for­tu­nately for Stephen Morse, his Re­muera home is of­ten di­rectly up­wind.

The smell is the worst on a week­day morn­ing, when ev­ery­one is shit­ting and show­er­ing in uni­son be­fore head­ing off to work. The sec­ond-worst time is when he ar­rives home, just be­fore din­ner. “It makes me sick to my stom­ach,” he says. Morse is wor­ried it’s caused his home, which he bought in 1999, to lose value. He wants a halt on any new de­vel­op­ments in the area un­til the sit­u­a­tion is brought un­der con­trol. (When it’s sug­gested this might be dif­fi­cult due to Auck­land’s hous­ing cri­sis, he dis­putes such a thing ex­ists.)

Walk­ing along the banks of the stream, Morse points to bits of crepey rub­bish wound like pa­pier mâché around low-hang­ing branches above the wa­ter and once again ex­presses dis­gust. It’s toi­let paper, he claims — proof the sewer pipes over­flow too of­ten and too high. It’s hard to tell from the track whether it re­ally is toi­let paper, but there’s no deny­ing it looks bad.

Like much of cen­tral Auck­land, New­mar­ket has a par­tially com­bined stormwa­ter and wastew­a­ter (sewage) net­work, so there are huge swathes of the city where the pipes built to take the wa­ter from our toi­lets and show­ers are the same ones that rain­wa­ter flows into. The pipes are sup­posed to carry their load south to the Mān­gere Wastew­a­ter Treat­ment Plant, but when it rains, many of them over­flow (as they’re de­signed to do) to des­ig­nated spill points, and all that churned-up, shitty wa­ter is dis­charged into our creeks and streams, onto our beaches, and into our two har­bours.

This hap­pened on Christ­mas Day 2018. Just be­fore lunchtime, what had been a

driz­zly morn­ing fi­nally started to clear. Tor­ren­tial rain had caused flood­ing around the North Is­land the day be­fore; 63mm of rain had fallen at Auck­land Air­port, the wettest Christ­mas Eve on record. Some peo­ple spent Christ­mas morn­ing with­out power.

The op­ti­mistic fam­i­lies around Auck­land who de­cided to risk mov­ing Christ­mas lunch out­side quickly re­gret­ted the de­ci­sion as driz­zle gave way to thun­der­storms. That’s when ev­ery­thing went to shit. The coun­cil’s colour-coded warn­ing sys­tem re­sponded. “I got a whole lot of me­dia calls, ‘Why is ev­ery­thing black and red?’” Auck­land Coun­cil Safeswim pro­gramme man­ager Nick Vi­gar re­calls.

Vi­gar is tasked with fac­ing up to me­dia ev­ery time some­thing goes wrong with the city’s stormwa­ter net­work — like when mil­lions of tonnes of wa­ter used to fight the In­ter­na­tional Con­ven­tion Cen­tre fire at SkyCity ended up in Viaduct Har­bour. Frank and good na­tured, the only time dur­ing our in­ter­view when it feels like he is try­ing to con­trol the nar­ra­tive is when some­one men­tions an an­i­ma­tion the coun­cil cre­ated last sum­mer to track sewage flow around Auck­land’s har­bours. “Don’t call it the poo tracker,” he sighs.

Dur­ing that stormy Christ­mas break, a dozen beaches around Auck­land were put on black or red alert by Safeswim, a joint ini­tia­tive by Auck­land Coun­cil, Water­care, Surf Life­sav­ing North­ern Re­gion and the Auck­land Re­gional

Pub­lic Health Ser­vice, which pre­dicts how suit­able a beach is for swim­ming. If you look on Safeswim’s web­site and see a lit­tle green cir­cle with a wa­ter drop and a tick, that beach poses low risk of sick­ness. Any beach with rates of en­te­ro­cocci bac­te­ria be­low 280 per 100ml of wa­ter will be green. A red cir­cle with a cross means high risk of ill­ness from swim­ming — above 280 en­te­ro­cocci per 100ml of wa­ter. A red swim­mer with a cross means a long-term no-swim alert, and a black cir­cle with a cross means an ac­tual and re­ported sewage over­flow.

We’re a city of wa­ter lovers; ac­cord­ing to a re­cent coun­cil sur­vey, more than two-thirds of us rate clean wa­ter­ways and beaches as our most im­por­tant “musthave” — a sig­nif­i­cantly higher pro­por­tion than those who thought hav­ing some­where to spend qual­ity time with fam­ily was a “must-have” (make of that what you will). But any time there’s a de­cent down­pour in Auck­land, Safeswim’s interactiv­e map starts to turn from green to red, es­pe­cially at the isth­mus beaches to the west of the Har­bour Bridge. It’s a fa­mil­iar scene: all these beaches and nowhere to swim. In late Jan­uary last year — the height of sum­mer — 48 beaches were flagged red or black in one week. So why are so many of our beaches no-go zones so of­ten?

First of all, Auck­land has an un­usu­ally high num­ber of beaches for a city of its size, mean­ing the chance of any one of them be­ing con­tam­i­nated by dirty wa­ter at any given point is high. Then there’s our fre­quently wet weather, which com­pounds the fi­nal and un­der­ly­ing cause of a lot of our beach’s prob­lems: the cen­tral city’s woe­fully over­loaded and out­dated com­bined wa­ter net­work.

The Safeswim team charts beaches on a table, ranked from clean­est (like Devon­port Beach, which is swimmable more or less all year round) to dirt­i­est (like Coxs

Bay, one of eight sites with long-term warn­ings in place). Vi­gar points to the lower half of the table. Many of the bays down the bot­tom are in the af­flu­ent, in­ner-western part of Auck­land: St Marys Bay, Herne Bay, Home Bay. “Com­bined, com­bined, com­bined,” he says point­edly. From Novem­ber 2018 to April last year, Home Bay was marked red or black, on av­er­age, one day out of ev­ery three. Herne Bay was one out of ev­ery four.

Like so many in­fra­struc­ture projects, when the com­bined wa­ter net­work was built in the early 1900s, no one could have pre­dicted the way the city would change and grow. At the time, Auck­land’s pop­u­la­tion was a frac­tion of what it is now. Later, as plot sizes shrank to ac­com­mo­date mod­ern medium- and high-den­sity hous­ing, the pipes stayed the same while the amount of wa­ter and sewage sent through them in­creased ex­po­nen­tially. As more land was built on or paved over, the ground’s abil­ity to soak up rain­fall shrank, send­ing wa­ter run­ning off roofs and roads and into the com­bined net­work in­stead. Mean­while,

more and more toi­lets, show­ers, wash­ing ma­chines and ev­ery­thing else re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing dirty wa­ter (by the 1960s be­ing sent through the pipes to Mān­gere for pro­cess­ing) were be­ing plumbed in.

To­day, about 16,000 homes, mainly in in­ner-western sub­urbs, still use the old com­bined sys­tem. When­ever Auck­land has a “very wet day” (which MetSer­vice de­fines as 5mm of rain or more), the pipes are over­whelmed and spill, as they’re de­signed to do. As many as 100 times a year, stormwa­ter mixed with wastew­a­ter (which in­cludes not just the hu­man ex­cre­ment you’d ex­pect, but also ev­ery­thing we flush down the toi­let, like tam­pons and den­tal floss) over­flows along with stormwa­ter into streams and onto beaches.

Vi­gar de­scribes the sit­u­a­tion we’re in now as “death by a thou­sand cuts”. “There is no point at which you could say it sud­denly got worse. A cou­ple of spills a year be­came a half a dozen, in the next decade be­came 20, and then the next decade be­came 30,” he says. “Fun­da­men­tally, if the question is, ‘How did we get to this point?’, it’s that Auck­land just grew past the ca­pac­ity of its in­fra­struc­ture.”

The rea­son things have been al­lowed to drift along aim­lessly like this is the same rea­son any­thing ever drifts along aim­lessly: lack of money and a his­tor­i­cal lack of will to spend what’s there.

“Legacy coun­cils didn’t bite the bul­let on some­thing they knew needed to hap­pen,” Mayor Phil Goff says.

The fact Auck­land is built on swathes of vol­canic rock has ex­ac­er­bated the is­sue: basalt formed by lava flows is par­tic­u­larly tough, mak­ing it tricky and ex­pen­sive to lay pipes through.

But ev­ery problem has its tip­ping point. In the early 2000s, Water­care’s plan to build an enor­mous $1.2 bil­lion Cen­tral In­ter­cep­tor (CI) sewage pipe­line was put into mo­tion and last year, the project fi­nally broke ground. Early this year, the first part of the 4.5m-wide, 13km-long tun­nel will be dug 110m be­low ground, us­ing a 150m-long Ger­man-de­signed tun­nel-bor­ing ma­chine. When it’s com­pleted, the CI will run from Grey Lynn to Mān­gere and re­duce over­flows on the western beaches in cen­tral Auck­land and wa­ter­ways by more than 80%. The des­ig­nated spill spots will re­duce from 219 to 10, and each is pre­dicted to over­flow fewer than 10 times a year.

Goff wants the project done yesterday — he says the fact the CI’s on track to be com­pleted by 2025 is be­cause he made the call as mayor to bring ex­pen­di­ture for­ward so it could be fin­ished faster. “You can’t be a world-class city and ev­ery time it rains have the stormwa­ter flow into the wastew­a­ter and wastew­a­ter over­flow onto the beaches — that’s 19th cen­tury, not 21st cen­tury.”

Un­der Goff, the coun­cil has also in­tro­duced a wa­ter-qual­ity tar­geted rate, which is pro­jected to raise $452 mil­lion in rev­enue each year for 10 years to fund ef­forts to clean up Auck­land’s beaches and wa­ter­ways, the largest be­ing what the coun­cil calls the western isth­mus wa­ter qual­ity im­prove­ment pro­gramme. The project will see some prop­er­ties in the in­ner-western sub­urbs have their wastew­a­ter sep­a­rated from the com­bined net­work, an enor­mously ex­pen­sive and dis­rup­tive op­er­a­tion that in­volves dig­ging up pri­vate land and costs an es­ti­mated $60,000 per prop­erty. Other homes will sim­ply get “plugged in” to the CI, which is less ex­pen­sive, but not an op­tion for ev­ery house­hold, be­cause the treated fresh­wa­ter dis­charged into the Manukau Har­bour, which has a salt­wa­ter ecosys­tem, can’t ex­ceed con­sent lim­its. You don’t want to fix one side of the city’s wa­ter is­sues only to cre­ate new prob­lems across town.

The Cen­tral In­ter­cep­tor is un­fath­omably huge. The much-touted height com­par­i­son (it’s as tall as a gi­raffe!) is im­pres­sive, but so is its snaking length — nearly four times as long as the City Rail Link. The pipe will head un­der­neath the Manukau Har­bour at Hills­bor­ough Bay, across the Mān­gere in­let, un­der Am­bury Park and poke its head back up at the treat­ment plant by the in­ner edge of the har­bour. In charge of the project is Shayne Cu­nis, a tall and ge­nial bloke who is con­fi­dent, like all peo­ple al­lowed to talk to jour­nal­ists in the mid­dle of a ma­jor project are, that ev­ery­thing is go­ing to plan. “The problem with large projects is they go badly — we’re not go­ing to,” he says.

The CI’s scale is in­ter­na­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant and there’s a problem-solver’s joy in fig­ur­ing out how to cir­cum­vent the chal­lenges this par­tic­u­lar project faces. “This thing is de­signed to last 100 years,” Cu­nis

says. I pic­ture him slap­ping the side of the CI tun­nel like a car sales­man promis­ing great mileage out of a sec­ond-hand Toy­ota. It will also al­low Auck­land to keep grow­ing. It will run mostly in a di­rect line from north to south and cre­ate a more ef­fi­cient route than the clock­wise jour­ney wastew­a­ter from the west cur­rently makes around the city be­fore end­ing up in Mān­gere.

Cu­nis runs a team out of Eden Park, cho­sen in part be­cause it’s near one of the project’s first ac­tive con­struc­tion sites, in May Rd, Mt Roskill. It’s also a nice mon­ey­maker for the sta­dium, which was bailed out to the tune of $63 mil­lion early last year, af­ter fail­ing to pay back a coun­cil-guar­an­teed bank loan. That’s ex­actly the kind of fis­cal dis­as­ter Cu­nis is adamant won’t hap­pen with the CI. He as­sures me that af­ter con­trac­tors were pro­cured, the project was still com­ing in un­der bud­get. There’s five and a half years left, though, I help­fully point out. Surely that’s plenty of time to blow the bud­get? “Yeah, thanks for that,” he says. “That’s on the KPI [key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tor] of things we’re try­ing not to do — but you’re right, most of these big projects… have prob­lems.” Then he’s back on mes­sage. “Ev­ery­one here is com­mit­ted to de­liv­er­ing this on time and on bud­get.”

An ab­sence of prob­lems is the CI’s ul­ti­mate goal — the mark of suc­cess will be ev­ery­one even­tu­ally for­get­ting it’s there. As Cu­nis says, “No one wants shit on their beaches.”

The bright-or­ange drone re­cedes to a speck, dis­ap­pear­ing into Ran­gi­toto as it buzzes away from us across the still wa­ter at Ko­hi­marama Beach at roughly the same speed as a griz­zly bear run­ning at full pelt. The sky is clear and bright, but the sand still dense from yesterday’s rain. Con­trac­tors from en­gi­neer­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sult­ing firm PDP are col­lect­ing wa­ter sam­ples here on Auck­land Coun­cil’s be­half and the con­di­tions need to be just right: a de­cent amount of rain, fol­lowed by a still day like to­day.

Pre­vi­ously, the re­sult from a sin­gle wa­ter sam­ple dur­ing the week would dic­tate Safeswim’s of­fi­cial wa­ter-qual­ity rat­ing for sev­eral days and of­ten into the week­end.

A Univer­sity of Auck­land mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist in­volved in re­cent changes at Safeswim was quoted in the New Zealand Her­ald in 2018 as say­ing the ac­cu­racy of that ap­proach was “about ran­dom”.

The pro­gramme now re­lies on long-term data mod­el­ling to pre­dict wa­ter qual­ity at Auck­land’s beaches, based on re­cent rain­fall. Wa­ter-qual­ity rat­ings are not based on a sin­gle re­cent sam­ple, but rather on the pre­dicted like­li­hood of an over­flow based on data col­lated from numer­ous pre­vi­ous sam­ples taken fol­low­ing wet weather

(each site is sam­pled about 26 times a year). An ex­cep­tion is black flags, which are based on ob­served sewage over­flows, not mod­el­ling — such as a leak from a sewage pipe de­tected in Browns Bay in Oc­to­ber last year.

Nick Vi­gar con­cedes Auck­land Coun­cil’s data col­lec­tion has his­tor­i­cally been “not good enough”. Some sam­ples were taken only in sum­mer, some were taken in wet weather, some were taken by he­li­copter, oth­ers were taken by hand. “We had re­ally vari­able data qual­ity. The main problem with the old weekly Safeswim sam­pling is that 90% of the data you col­lect is dry-weather data. And yet it’s wet weather when we know [the pipes over­flow].” In De­cem­ber 2018, the way wa­ter sam­ples were col­lected was made more uni­form through­out the re­gion, and Vi­gar is con­fi­dent Safeswim’s data has im­proved as a re­sult.

It might seem counter-in­tu­itive, but it’s ac­tu­ally much cheaper, not to men­tion faster, to send a he­li­copter out to test a bunch of beaches one af­ter the other than it is to send small teams out on the road to wade in and scoop out a sam­ple by hand. But col­lect­ing sam­ples too far off­shore isn’t much use for mod­el­ling safe swim­ming con­di­tions. Sam­ples are now taken in knee-deep wa­ter at all beaches, and only at those like Ko­hi­marama, which are reg­u­larly used for events, is the drone used to sam­ple wa­ter fur­ther out from shore.

As the drone re­turns, a small plas­tic sleeve sways be­low, bulging with sea­wa­ter. A con­trac­tor grabs it with rub­ber gloves on and un­clips it from a long or­ange rope be­fore pierc­ing the side with a plas­tic straw. The wa­ter drains into a sam­pling pot­tle, which is put on ice to be taken with the day’s other sam­ples to the lab for test­ing.

Over in Devon­port, a sim­i­lar process is un­der way, al­beit with slightly fewer tech­ni­cal com­po­nents. Work­ers for con­sul­tants Mott Mac­Don­ald pull on rub­ber waders and ven­ture out into the choppy surf to col­lect sam­ples by hand. An or­ange “Mighty Grip­per” pole with a lit­tle claw at the end is clasped around a pot­tle, which is plunged into the waves and filled with wa­ter for test­ing.

The lab tests are look­ing for the pres­ence of two bugs: E. Coli and en­te­ro­cocci. Both are bac­te­ria that live in the guts of mam­mals, in­clud­ing hu­mans, and they are re­li­able in­di­ca­tors of fae­cal con­tam­i­na­tion in wa­ter. Nei­ther bug is usu­ally likely to make you sick by it­self, but the other pathogens in poo, such as gi­a­r­dia or campy­lobac­ter, will.

When a beach on Safeswim’s web­site turns red, it doesn’t ex­actly mean don’t swim. It means there’s an above 2% chance that, should you choose to swim, you will get sick. Safeswim doesn’t dis­tin­guish be­tween a 2% chance and a 10% chance: both will show red, based on mod­elled pre­dic­tions. Be­fore Safeswim’s mod­el­ling pre­dic­tions, a blan­ket 48-hour warn­ing was placed on most beaches in cen­tral Auck­land fol­low­ing heavy rain, even though lots of beaches dis­perse dirty wa­ter with the tide faster than that. The im­pre­cise nature of the warn­ing led many to dis­re­gard it. Vi­gar hopes the

more re­spon­sive Safeswim web­site will en­cour­age peo­ple to re­ally con­sider when they’re be­ing given a warn­ing, and make an in­formed choice.

This raises the question of how many times some­thing we didn’t know about didn’t hurt us. In­creased aware­ness about what’s in the wa­ter has per­haps led to a per­cep­tion wa­ter qual­ity has sud­denly be­come a lot worse. “I don’t think peo­ple made that con­nec­tion,” Vi­gar says. “Peo­ple were swim­ming, bliss­fully un­aware.”

Ini­tia­tives like the CI and the western isth­mus project will help im­prove wa­ter qual­ity, but the com­bined net­work isn’t the only way sewage gets onto beaches, and it won’t get rid of red and black flags en­tirely. In Taka­puna, where the pipe net­works are sep­a­rated, the beach has been un­der close ob­ser­va­tion by Water­care af­ter it was found to be un­swimmable for a large chunk of sum­mer in early 2018.

Since then, Water­care has in­spected hun­dreds of prop­er­ties’ pipes to check for cross-con­tam­i­na­tion, in a quest to find the root of the problem. Pipes are frag­ile things — they can crack with age or if tree roots start grow­ing through them, or can be­come blocked with fat or de­bris, and when that hap­pens, wastew­a­ter can leak or spill where it’s not sup­posed to. A blocked gully trap, for ex­am­ple, can cause wastew­a­ter to bub­ble up onto peo­ple’s prop­er­ties, or out into the road where it ends up in a storm drain. It’s also not un­com­mon for prop­er­ties’ wastew­a­ter sys­tems to be im­prop­erly plumbed into the stormwa­ter net­work, or vice versa. The for­mer causes the pipes to dis­charge sewage and grey­wa­ter straight into the stormwa­ter sys­tem, which flows di­rectly to the sea; the lat­ter over­whelms the wastew­a­ter net­work and con­trib­utes to wet-weather spills. The amount of stormwa­ter that one pipe will di­vert into the net­work is the equiv­a­lent of 40 houses’ worth of wastew­a­ter.

In Taka­puna, about 10% of the houses checked were found to be in some way faulty. To test where faults might be, white smoke is forced into an open man­hole cover, and a team of Water­care staff crane their necks check­ing if they can spot it com­ing out at any nearby prop­er­ties. Dur­ing a check on a blis­ter­ingly hot day last March, an im­prop­erly con­nected stormwa­ter pipe made it­self known as smoke bil­lowed out and above a house’s roof.

Water­care net­work ef­fi­ciency man­ager Anin Nama says try­ing to achieve per­fect wa­ter qual­ity in an ur­ban environmen­t is a Sisyphean task. Animals poo, too, and there are plenty of dogs, cats and birds liv­ing in the city, both wild and do­mes­ti­cated. “You can ad­dress the hu­man com­po­nent, but you will still have this nat­u­ral back­ground con­tam­i­na­tion that you just can’t ad­dress.” You can also raise all the aware­ness you like, but there will still be peo­ple who plumb their wash­ing ma­chines di­rectly into the stormwa­ter sys­tem, or pour clean­ing chem­i­cals into a street­side drain. Nev­er­the­less, they keep try­ing. What else can you do?

It’s pop­u­lar to blame the coun­cil when any­thing goes wrong in Auck­land, but that’s only some­times fair. While it’s not un­rea­son­able to ask why some­thing wasn’t done about our beaches sooner, it’s also fu­tile. They do ap­pear to be deal­ing with the prob­lems they’ve in­her­ited, and the mayor seems par­tic­u­larly keen to make his lead­er­ship the one that sees a real turnaround in wa­ter qual­ity. But none of the changes needed will hap­pen overnight, so for now all we can do is wait to see how well these plans pan out.

On an op­pres­sively hu­mid Sun­day af­ter­noon, I make plans to head from my apart­ment in the CBD to a nearby beach to take my first dip of the sum­mer. I can’t wait to sub­merge my­self un­der the waves. About an hour be­fore high tide, a brief yet heavy sum­mer storm passes over Auck­land, so I check Safeswim be­fore leav­ing home. All the beaches are red.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.