Live now
Start time
Playing for
End time
Listen live
Up next
Listen live on

Wellington water shortage: State of emergency planned if restrictions fail

Georgina Campbell,
Publish Date
Wed, 17 Jan 2024, 8:20AM
Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

Wellington water shortage: State of emergency planned if restrictions fail

Georgina Campbell,
Publish Date
Wed, 17 Jan 2024, 8:20AM

Authorities in Wellington have planned for a regional state of emergency if water levels get so low that suburbs run dry this summer.

The looming crisis has already prompted some residents to queue for hours to get their hands on emergency water tanks. Hutt City Council has reported it sold out of tanks in a matter of hours on Friday.

The region has moved to Level 2 restrictions today in a bid to limit water use and avoid the worst-case scenario.

This means residential sprinklers and irrigation are banned but people can still water their gardens by hand with a hose. The new rules apply to Wellington City, Porirua City, Hutt City, and Upper Hutt City.

The decision to increase restrictions was made last week after water use peaked at 195 million litres on January 9.

Wellington Water, which manages water assets on behalf of these councils, expects demand will increase further as Wellingtonians return home from their summer holidays.

Frustratingly for everyone involved, the restrictions come as the region is losing 44 per cent of its treated drinking water to leaks.

There are more than 3000 open confirmed leaks and many others going undetected below the surface.

Precious water is bubbling away onto pavements and roads due to ageing infrastructure, historical underinvestment, and an increasing backlog of desperately needed pipe replacements.

One man resorted to digging a trench during a three-month wait to get the leak outside his home in Miramar fixed.

Level 3 restrictions are likely in late January 

Wellington Water’s latest risk update said there is a 76 per cent chance of moving to Level 3 restrictions this summer. This is likely to happen in late January. 

Under these restrictions, all residential outdoor water use is banned and residents should consider reducing indoor water use by taking shorter showers and only doing full loads of laundry. 

There is a 33 per cent chance the region will then move to Level 4 restrictions, most likely in early February. 

This means there is a significant water shortage and people need to reduce indoor water use by up to 50 per cent by taking 2-minute showers and limiting laundry use to one load per person per week. 

There are more than 3000 known open leaks across the region. Photo / Georgina CampbellThere are more than 3000 known open leaks across the region. Photo / Georgina Campbell 

In this situation, the Wellington Water emergency management team would be stood up and a request made to water services regulator Taumata Arowai to declare a drinking water emergency. 

A regional state of emergency would be declared if there was no longer a buffer between the available water supply and how much was being used. 

In this situation, some suburbs may not have water and residents would be told to check on neighbours, friends and whānau. 

The Wellington Region Emergency Management Office (WREMO) would oversee the signing of a regional state of emergency for local councils. 

There would be daily media briefings and public updates as part of the response. 

Wellington Water chief drinking water advisor Laurence Edwards said a state of emergency would only be declared in an extreme scenario where demand was exceeding supply on an ongoing basis. 

There is a risk water quality could be affected if treated water storage reservoirs get too low, Edwards said. 

“That does increase the risk of contamination potentially getting into the network which, in an absolute worst-case scenario, we would need boil water notices to make sure we are protecting public health.” 

Demand for emergency water tanks surges 

WREMO has a pre-existing partnership with water tank manufacturer The Tank Guy to make 200-litre water tanks, that have a retail price of $265, available for $115. 

Wellington City Council spokesman Richard MacLean said 222 tanks have been sold at the Tip Shop in the past six weeks. 

This is a considerable surge in demand compared to the 39 tanks sold over the same period a year prior. 

Upper Hutt City Council chief executive Geoff Swainson said there were about 400 people on the waiting list for tanks. 

The supplier was expected to deliver about 90 tanks per week to the council, Swainson said. 

“Hopefully, within the next month or so we will be able to clear that backlog but of course, there is a high level of interest at the moment. 

“So, I imagine fresh inquiries will be coming through all the time which is a good thing because it means people are aware of the situation and are prepared to take steps to do what they can.” 

Meanwhile, Hutt City Council sold out of water tanks within a few hours following a fresh delivery on Friday. The council has ordered another 720 tanks which will be delivered in batches over the next two months. 

The Tank Guy owner Gary King said yesterday he was “flat tack”. 

Where to buy water tanks 

Wellington City: Tip Shop, Southern Landfill 

Lower Hutt: Petone Library, 7 Brittania Street 

Porirua: Porirua City Council Service Centre, 16 Cobham Court 

Kāpiti Coast: 175 Rimu Road, Paraparaumu 

Upper Hutt: 838-842 Fergusson Drive 

Masterton: 161 Queen St 

Carterton: Holloway Street 

South Wairarapa: 19 Kitchener Street, Martinborough 

Thousands of leaks a ‘communications nightmare’ 

The restrictions come as the region is losing 44 per cent of water through leaks. 

Wellington Water’s latest leak progress update shows 4200 leaks have been fixed this financial year but it’s still not enough. 

Wellington Water chief executive Tonia Haskell said fixing leaks was a complex situation due to a backlog from historical underinvestment, asbestos cement pipes failing decades earlier than expected, the affordability problems facing councils, and some leaks being located in difficult places. 

Haskell said the biggest leaks were prioritised, given the amount of water seeping out of the network. 

“Those are the ones we go after first but they’re usually harder and more complex because of the scale of the problem.” 

Wellington Water Committee chairman Campbell Barry acknowledged it was a “communications nightmare” asking people to conserve water when there were leaks outside their homes going unfixed. 

Wellington Water chairman Nick Leggett said $7.6 billion needed to be invested in the region’s water network. Photo / SuppliedWellington Water chairman Nick Leggett said $7.6 billion needed to be invested in the region’s water network. Photo / Supplied 

In September last year, Barry organised a regional Water Shortage Summit where Wellington Water recommended more money for fixing leaks and replacing old pipes, introducing water meters for the metropolitan Wellington region and building another storage lake. 

Barry said councils needed to act sooner rather than later. 

“Even if we made these decisions now, we’re still looking at a number of summers with potential water shortages- that’s the reality. What’s untenable for me is not demonstrating to our community that we are taking practical steps to solve the problem.” 

Wellington Water board chairman Nick Leggett said $7.6 billion of investment in the region’s water network was needed over the next ten years. 

“The more we invest upfront, the less we need to spend on reactive maintenance. The problem is when you react to things, it reduces efficiency and it costs more.” 

Leggett gave the example of Wellington Water fixing a burst pipe, only for it to burst in another place a week later. 

“That lack of efficiency is because there isn’t enough money that’s been invested in renewals- we would much rather come and replace the whole section of the pipe but we don’t have the money to do that.” 

Georgina Campbell is a Wellington-based reporter who has a particular interest in local government, transport, and seismic issues. She joined the Herald in 2019 after working as a broadcast journalist. 

Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you