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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Auckland has a beach of a problem

Auckland has a major problem with the water quality at its many swimming beaches. Many are unsafe to swim at due contamination from stormwater or even raw sewerage when there’s a heavy rain. While this would be bad for any city, it’s especially bad for Auckland, which is built on an isthmus. Worse, people clearly don’t understand the causes or cures to this problem.

The problems with water quality is that the former city governments underinvested in infrastructure, and left wastewater and stormwater systems combined rather than separating them. They did this to keep rates (similar to property taxes) lower. Other areas, including the former North Shore City, invested in separation to prevent raw sewerage being dumped into waterways and on beaches whenever there was a heavy rain.

The current Auckland Council is planning to fix those earlier failings of the old city councils, but doing that won’t fix all the problems. First, cities are incredibly dirty places, and when there’s heavy rain, stormwater carries all sorts of toxic urban pollution off streets, buildings, and private property. This can include oil and petrol, paint, industrial chemicals, and even garden chemicals used by private gardeners, among much more. For a city the size of Auckland, in a country the size of New Zealand, building a system to capture and treat stormwater is impossibly expensive.

So, in addition to separating stormwater and wastewater (sewer) systems, Auckland Council plans on building a huge underground tunnel system to catch stormwater so it doesn’t flood beaches. The first phase will cost around $1 billion (today about US$713 million)—that’s the first phase.

This is similar to what my former hometown Chicago, did. Beginning in 1975, the Metropolitcan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago began construction of what everyone called the Deep Tunnel Project. The first phase as 176km of tunnels and was completed in 2006, with the next phase due for completion in 2029.

Chicago’s situation is different from Auckland’s in that wastewater and sewerage are both treated before being discharged into rivers. Before Deep Tunnel, severe storms would mean that untreated water—including raw sewerage—had to be pumped out into Lake Michigan, which is particularly bad because Chicago and nearby areas—millions of people—rely on the lake for their drinking water.

The system Auckland is planning is similar in that it will be, essentially, a reservoir to hold stormwater. As near as I can tell, it still won’t be treated before it’s released, and that’s not good.

The projects planned for Auckland’s wastewater and stormwater systems are important, but in addition to being able to contain some stormwater, at least, there’s more that needs to be done. Much of the pollution of beaches is fecal—human and animal. The human part comes from ageing sewerage systems, illegal connections of stormwater systems to sanitary sewers, from poorly maintained (or non-maintained) septic systems in West Auckland, and from dairy farms, whose run-off enters the harbours mostly carried by rivers and streams.

All of which has confused people to no end.

Recently, Auckland Council launched a website called Safeswim to provide Aucklanders with information to assess whether it’s safe to swim at beaches and some freshwater locations. Some 84 beaches and 8 freshwater locations are included, and among them are 16 that have “long-term water quality alerts” and they recommend that people don’t swim at those spots. The closest beach to us, within walking distance, is on the list.

The problem with the site and the list is that no one could figure out where the information was coming from and how reliable it was. Today the New Zealand Herald published “12 Questions” with Andrew Chin, Auckland Council’s water manager. In it he explained what happens far more clearly than I’ve seen anyone else do:
Safeswim forecasts what the water quality is going to be like today, rather than testing samples and telling people what it was like three days ago. People can now go online and check not only the water quality but also the sea conditions including tides and safety risks at 84 beaches and eight freshwater locations region wide. It's a joint initiative between Auckland Council, Watercare, Surf Lifesaving and the Auckland Regional Public Health Service.
So, the advisories are projections, but we know that the water quality is tested. I think, but do not know, that the beaches with “long-term water quality alerts” are backed-up by actual testing, though I have no idea how often that’s done. But even if they tested daily—which ratepayers would never agree to pay for—it’s not where the focus should be, because it’s telling us there’s a problem, not fixing that problem.

In addition to the infrastructure already planned (there’s more than what I mentioned, of course), there’s more that needs to be done.

There’s a lot more that needs to be done, not all of it up to Council. Here’s some of what I think should be in the mix:

• A carrot and stick approach toward people with septic systems in West Auckland: A carrot to encourage the owners to maintain them, followed by a heavy stick of punishment for those who don’t.

• An accelerated programme to ensure dairy cattle are kept well away from waterways, and to restore wetlands to catch run-off. This will require Central government’s involvement, plus the voluntary sector (NGOs are big in New Zealand), probably.

• Education and help for homeowners to install rainwater tanks and graywater recycling systems. This would involved both Council and Central Government, and it should include some financial incentives and well as fast-tracked permits and consents.

• Education to remind people that whenever there’s a heavy rain, they shouldn’t go swimming at any beach. If people understood that obvious point, there wouldn’t be a huge freakout every time a beach is closed due to stormwater contamination as happened yesterday. This will require advertising, and it’s probably Council’s responsibility, but it will cost. I wish common sense was more common, because I’d rather the money went to fixing the problem rather than telling people what they ought to figure out all on their own, but needs must, I guess.

This problem won’t go away any time soon. If Auckland ratepayers won’t pay a little bit more in their rates (currently $1.30 per week is being mooted), then by the most optimistic estimates it will take at least 30 years to bring about any real change.

I have to admit that I don’t fully understand the problem, or what can be done about it, but I’d like to. I’d like to think that one day soon people can swim at our local beach without worrying that they might get sick. And maybe, despite my protestations to the contrary, I’ll have to actually do something to help make that possible.

Related: Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s plan to fix this problem (via New Zealand Herald)

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