What's being done to clean Auckland's beaches

Takapuna beach displays its water warnings.  Photo: RNZ / Jessie Chiang
Takapuna beach displays its water warnings. Photo: RNZ / Jessie Chiang

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Many Aucklanders will be out on the water on Monday as Anniversary Day activities centre around the harbour. But some may be more reluctant than usual to get into the water.

Questions have been raised about safety and the risk of illness after a sudden downpour hit the city after a long dry spell and around 50 Auckland beaches were labelled with a 'don't swim' notice.

Most were fine again 48 hours later, but what stuck in minds was the council's Safeswim website that had lit up red just because it rained.

While Wellington struggles with ancient pipes that seem to be constantly breaking down, the problems in Auckland are less dramatic but appear to be more widespread. And whereas once residents may not have noticed too much amiss, three summers ago the council launched a website called Safeswim that displays in real time all the hazards and potential pollution at all the region's beaches.

Now the council's innovation is working against it - after the heavy rain the council copped it from critics who accused it of years of neglect and failure to act on the city's ancient infrastructure.

The critics are right, and wrong.

Safeswim's programme manager Nick Vigar says because insufficient money has been spent "over many, many, decades, we now have a situation where you get a wastewater overflow any time it rains.

"And I don't think in anyone's book that that's acceptable."

But addressing the sudden downpour effects, where masses of water flushes everything on the roads and beach surrounds into the sea, is not the big problem.

"The really problematic thing ... is not the 30mm of rainfall ... it's the beaches that light up red after two, three, four mils of rainfall. It's the inability to swim at Herne Bay, or St Mary's Bay, or some of those inner city beaches after a very small amount of rainfall."

However the council is not doing "nothing".

Auckland Councillor Richard Hills at Beach Haven beach. Photo: Alexia Russell
Auckland Councillor Richard Hills at Beach Haven beach. Photo: Alexia Russell

It's spent billions, with the help of a targeted rate, on new pumping stations, and in a few years the $1.3 billion central interceptor will solve many of the issues on the isthmus.  Streams and outfalls are being repatriated, and wetlands reinstated. The council is also constantly fixing broken pipes and tracing illegal sewerage connections - operations which are time and labour intensive.

In Monday's podcast Alexia Russell speaks to the council's environment committee chair Richard Hills about what's being done; whether people have a right to get angry over decades of inaction, and how the city is going to pay for repairs as it struggles to keep rates down.

RNZ

What's being done to clean Auckland's beaches