Aucklanders could drink water that's 'been through somebody's kidneys'

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says it's time residents got used to the idea of drinking water that's "been through somebody's kidneys a dozen times" if they don't want to be at the mercy of Mother Nature or Waikato river bosses.

The city, in its biggest drought in nearly three decades, has been urgently trying to find new sources of water. Its dams are usually 80 percent full at this time of year - on Wednesday they were only at 55 percent, and that's after a week of heavy rain. 

An agreement in principle has been reached with the Waikato Regional Council (WRC), river bosses and iwi to take more water from the river, but it's only an interim measure.

"Behind the scenes we've been working for some months in regard to putting different consent holders together to see whether there's transfer of water rights and consents to enable it to happen," WRC chair Russ Rimmington told The AM Show on Thursday. 

"Of course the big issue now is getting that plant at Tuakau to be able to process the water. So it is good we've got a good resolution. It was good to have it resolved locally [without] central Government intervention and the outcome's great for us all." 

A representative from the Waikato River Authority caused a ruckus ahead of the meeting by saying Auckland would be charged 10c a litre to take more from the river - 64 times what households currently pay.

"You know what that would have meant for the average family in Auckland? $2000 a month," said Goff, admitting the discussions had been "quite messy". 

"Why would Auckland be the only drawer on the river that had to pay for the water? We don't accept that anybody, in particular, owns the water. It starts up at Taupo and it comes right down the river and it flows through Waikato-Tainui - they own the riverbed, that's fine. But look, in the end common sense prevailed." 

Russ Rimmington, the Waikato River at Huka Falls and Phil Goff.
Russ Rimmington, the Waikato River at Huka Falls and Phil Goff. Photo credit: Getty/The AM Show

Watercare and Auckland Council are likely to spend money improving the quality of the water in the river and building a new treatment plant, but Goff said in the long-term, bigger plans are needed - such as recycling wastewater, which he estimates will cost "probably a bit more" than $1 billion.

"But that's the nature of a growing city more likely to have drought with climate change. [In Singapore] every drop of water you've ever drunk has been through somebody's kidneys a dozen times. Probably 100 times. It doesn't sound great, but the time we have recycled that water and treated it, it's as pure as the water that falls from the sky.

"People screw up their nose and I was told it's just not appropriate or it's culturally offensive - no, we've got to do that. That is the guaranteed source of water as our city hits 2 million people - we simply recycle the water. That means we don't pout any partially contaminated water into the harbour - we treat it into total purity."

The alternatives could be even costlier. Goff says a desalination plant, which would allow the city to draw water from the sea, would cost twice much. 

"We've stopped charging resource consents on fitting a water tank to take the rainwater off your roof. Should have done that years ago, to tell you the truth - that's common sense... Longer-term, we have to recycle our wastewater."

Rimmington said Waikato officials were reluctant to give Auckland more water because they see it as their role to protect the river. 

"I represent the Waikato - that's the important thing. Really what we saw is we've got to put the river first - not political aspirations, or the will of Auckland or the demands of the PR machine of those big entities in Auckland. What's best for the Waikato River? Put that first, and see what flows from that." 

But once everyone got in the same room, Goff and Rimmington say "common sense" prevailed.

"Initially it didn't feel like it was going to fire," said Rimmington. "Phil Goff - I like him very much - wasn't that keen to come. Probably neither was Raveen [Jaduram, chief executive of Auckland Council's Watercare]. But to get them all in the room at one time, plus Waikato-Tainui and the Waikato River Authority was no mean task, but there was goodwill between them all."

"We sat in the room like adults, we reached a good agreement in principle," said Goff. 

The long-term issues will be dealt with by a board of inquiry set up by the Government, which will also look at speeding up Auckland's formal Resource Management Act application for more water.