Clash between Auckland and Waikato over water rights as drought worsens

A scrap has broken out between Auckland and Waikato over water rights.

In the latest clash, Waikato has labelled Auckland's Watercare "incompetent".

In Newshub's latest Because It Matters series we can reveal if the city doesn't buck up its ideas soon it'll be facing severe water restrictions next summer.

Just one week into restrictions and Aucklanders are failing to conserve enough water. The city is drinking itself dry as the dams drain emptier by the day.

2020 is on track to be the city's driest year ever with just a third of normal rainfall.

"This particular drought is of the most extreme we've really seen since the beginning of the 20th century," NIWA meteorologist Ben Noll told Newshub.

It's a deep problem for a city that's reliant on and used to rain. About 80 percent of Auckland's water comes from its dams.

They're now at just 42 percent - the lowest they've been since the 1994 water crisis.

Clash between Auckland and Waikato over water rights as drought worsens
Photo credit: Newshub

"The situation is severe," Watercare CEO Raveen Jaduram warns.

While the dams run low, tensions between councils run high.

"They've got to stop the blame game, look where the issue lies - right at their front door," Waikato Regional Council chairperson Russ Rimmington tells Newshub.

"I don't know what they've been doing, they've been asleep at the wheel."

When Auckland Mayor Phil Goff announced water restrictions a fortnight ago, he used the podium to protest Watercare's seven-year wait for approval to take more water from the Waikato River.

"We're frustrated, and I've written to the Minister for the Environment, in fact, twice, to say this really isn't good enough," Goff says.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. Photo credit: Newshub

But all that did is muddy the message because Auckland's current water shortage has nothing to do with that.

Even if Watercare was allowed to take more from the Waikato River it wouldn't make any difference because it has to treat this water first and it hasn't built the infrastructure required to do that.

"At the moment the constraint isn't a consent constraint, it's the infrastructure to treat the water that comes out of the Waikato River," Environment Minister David Parker says.

The delay the Mayor complained about was, actually, in Watercare's own words, "future planning" to meet demand 10 years from now.

So Waikato feels like it's being unfairly blamed for the delay now, when it has nothing to do with today's shortage.

Jaduram denies this is disingenuous.

"It would be if that was the intention, but I'll be very honest, that has never been my intention, and I don't think that's been the intention of the Mayor," he told Newshub.

Watercare CEO Raveen Jaduram.
Watercare CEO Raveen Jaduram. Photo credit: Newshub

Rimmington disagrees.

"They've certainly done it on purpose, it's a blame game," he told Newshub.

"They've been less than honest… [there's been a] lack of leadership, lack of planning… the buck stops with them, not here."

Jaduram says he doesn't want to get into a "tit-for-tat".

Watercare says restrictions are necessary and are just one drought solution. Another is to use emergency water sources.

From August, it'll be able to take slightly more from the Waikato River and will bring on smaller water sources like the Hayes Creek dam, in the Hunua Ranges.

Watercare rejects suggestions those crisis solutions have come too late.

"The quality of the water is extremely degraded… so the cost of treating it is more than the price at which we sell the water," Jaduram says.

Clash between Auckland and Waikato over water rights as drought worsens
Photo credit: Getty

What Auckland really needs is rain. And it's not coming any time soon.

"As we go into the winter season, the month of June may bring more long dry spells to large parts of New Zealand," Noll says.

It's only been a week since stage one restrictions came into effect but Aucklanders are still using too much water meaning level two already looms.

It would give Watercare the ability to do more drastic things like reduce water pressure to force Aucklanders to use less.

Then, some decent rain should with a bit of luck come around mid-July.

"It's far from a guarantee at this point as we talk about things that are several months away but it is on the cards the potential is there," Noll says.

Based on that forecast, Watercare's predicting Auckland's dams will be back up to around 70 percent by the start of summer. But they need to be at 90 per cent. 

The difference is about 20 billion litres of water, meaning "severe restrictions" will come next summer.

Watercare acknowledges that could be avoided with a fully drought-proof supply.

Now Auckland needs to decide if it wants to pay for it.