Understanding Rotorua's costly water dilemma

Water flowing to be treated at Rotorua Lakes Council's Karamu Takina springs and water treatment site. Screenshot.

Rotorua is wrestling with a costly dilemma facing many councils: How to keep the pipes flowing after years of what one councillor describes as “chronic underspending”.

Local Democracy reporter Laura Smith looks at how the city ended up in this situation - and what it will take to fix it.

Each day, there are 150,000 toilet flushes, 75,000 showers and 200,000 car journeys in the Rotorua district using infrastructure funded by rates and taxes.

“And people say, ‘what does council give us for that?’,” says district infrastructure boss Stavros Michael.

Rotorua Lakes Council has estimated it will need to spend $3 billion on core infrastructure over the next 30 years - renewing, improving and expanding.

Of the $610 million infrastructure spend budgeted for the next 10 years in the draft Long Term Plan – now out for public feedback – $200m was to enable housing growth.

Last year Infrastructure NZ found the country needed to more than double the $100 billion of planned work in the pipeline over three decades to plug the infrastructure deficit.

‘Chronic underspending’

Council infrastructure and environment group manager Stavros Michael and the corresponding committee’s chairwoman Karen Barker sat down with Local Democracy Reporting to discuss Rotorua’s situation and draft 30-year infrastructure strategy.

Karen says in her view the mostly-newly-elected council had “inherited some chronic underspending” from the last few decades and was seeking to address that within its “funding constraints”.

Karen Barker is chair of the council's infrastructure and environment committee. Photo: Laura Smith.

“Managing the demands for growth and balancing the opportunities for future ratepayers against affordable rates and debt levels for current ratepayers is a significant challenge for our district.”

The council needed to provide services that allowed people to live their daily lives, “so when they turn on their taps they get fresh drinking water”, she says.

Stavros says its responsibilities also included ensuring sewage was “not spilling all over the place”, and safe and reliable transport.

The draft strategy would see seven per cent of roads resealed each year.

Water flowing to be treated at Rotorua Lakes Council's Karamu Takina springs and water treatment site. Photo: Laura Smith.

“We rely heavily on our forestry, our visitor economy, on our local economy. Connecting people [is] very important,” says Stavros.

The council also needed to address existing risks. Rotorua is in a caldera, the hollow that forms after a volcanic eruption.

“We’re in a bowl. Every time it rains the water wants to go from a high place to a low place, which is the lake.”

The majority of the community was in that rainfall path.

”Our ability to grow depends on our ability to direct the water in a safe way.”

Rotorua sits within a caldera - the hollow that forms after a volcanic eruption. Photo: Felix Desmarais.

The city’s infrastructure was aging. The strategy said its $1.966b of assets had “expired by” between 50 and 60 per cent.

Stavros says about half of its pipelines were beyond their designed life and some materials used, such as asbestos in pipes, were now redundant.

“In the 50s it was the miracle material of the future, it would last forever,” says Stavros.

It did not, and also turned out to pose significant health risks to those working on the pipes.

Infrastructure and environment group manager Stavros Michael. Photo: Laura Smith.

Sewage used to be “dumped” into the lake until 1991 when it instead began being sprayed on land.

“If you ask any person now, ‘should we do it again?’, they’d probably put a bullet between your eyes.”

Catching up

Stavros says the underfunding of infrastructure renewals was, in his view, a result of how the city developed and a community focus on getting “new, shiny things”.

Politicians generally lasted three or four years, while assets would last 100, he says. It could lead to an approach of; “don’t worry, someone else will in the future, then someone else will in the future”.

He says Rotorua was focussed on critical infrastructure rather than trying to address everything at once.

For example: “If you have a treatment plant that does not work, it doesn’t matter if you have another 600km of pipes under the road and 80 pump stations that have nowhere to pump it to”.

The Karamu Takina springs and water treatment site serves the central Rotorua area. Photo: Laura Smith.

Rotorua’s sewerage network is worth about $600m. Renewing one per cent a year cost between $7m and $9m.

Until 2018 spending on that network was less than $2m a year, a quarter of what was spent now. Michael said that was like expecting every component to last 300 or 400 years.

“And now we have to catch up with that.”

Rotorua has its “unique challenges” - a concrete manhole would last up to 70 years elsewhere but might need replacing three times as often in the corrosive geothermal area of Rotorua.

The council has about 280,000 infrastructure assets, including pipes and equipment. A quarter of the 58,000 considered critical components were in the “unpredictable” geothermal zone.

The council wanted to avoid assets collapsing and the ensuing contamination, prosecution and health risks.

Karen says she wonders if the community understands the scale of the network, its value and its depreciation - then the flow-on impact to rates.

Water is pumped from the Rotorua Lakes Council's Karamu Takina springs and water treatment site to the central area. Photo: Laura Smith.

During a March meeting councillor Don Paterson said he was concerned about people feeling they were facing rates of $84 a week to “live in their own homes”.

But Stavros says he believes that was the wrong way to see it.

“It only costs you $84 a week to have access to secure water,” says Stavros.

“I think people take these services for granted … it’s when things go wrong people really start to notice.”

The politics of pipes

Karen says coming legislative changes were “complex” and added to the challenge of drafting the long term plan.

The Government is working on a new draft transport statement, a new Regional Infrastructure Fund worth $1.2b and the Local Water Done Well reforms.

The latter was to replace the previous Government’s Three Waters, repealed in February.

Local Government Minister Simeon Brown and Rotorua MP Todd McClay. Photo: Laura Smith.

Local Government Minister Simeon Brown has said councils were being asked to “lead the way in developing local solutions to our water services challenges”.

Inside a critical asset

Rotorua Lakes Council water operations engineer Owen Jansen took Local Democracy Reporting around the Karamu Takina springs and water treatment site.

Rotorua Lakes Council water operations engineer Owen Jansen at the Karamu Takina springs and water treatment site. Photo: Laura Smith.

It serves the central area with drinking water, from “Skyline to Sala St” and everything in between.

“Anyone that runs their taps in that area, this is where the water comes from.”

Owen guided Local Democracy Reporting through the chlorine gas treatment, where water was dosed at 0.5 parts per million, through to the springs where 100-year-old water flowed, down to the UV treatment system and into the pump station which filled the city’s reservoirs.

“The importance of this site is huge.”

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

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