Wellington prepares for possible state of emergency amid region's water crisis

Emergency services, councils and Civil Defence in Wellington are preparing for a possible state of emergency over the region's water crisis.  

There's a 23 percent chance of the city going to level 4 restrictions - which has never happened before. 

To prepare for the possibility, Wellington Water has asked drinking water regulator, Taumata Arowai, to extend its consents so it can draw more water from rivers and aquifers to top up reservoirs.   

"Wellington Water has asked if we would consider using the emergency powers available to us under the Water Services Act 2021, specifically letting them take more water than their current resource consents allow. This is under consideration," Taumata Arowai's head of regulation Steve Taylor said.  

The Wellington region is losing 45 percent of its water supply through leaks - while Auckland is losing 13 percent.   

This has led to level 2 water restrictions for Wellington City, Porirua and Hutt Valley.   

However, with usage on the rise due to hot weather and people returning to work, authorities are planning for the worst-case scenario - level 4 restrictions. 

For it to get to that point, plants would have to be "maxed out", said Charles Barker, Wellington Water's regulatory services manager.  

"We are a little bit vulnerable then that if there's a sudden outage, we could have an impact on our drinking water system - that's not likely." 

In case the region progresses to level 4, Wellington Water has been meeting with Fire and Emergency New Zealand, police, the Department of Internal Affairs, local councils, Taumata Arowai and Civil Defence to discuss contingency plans.  

"There have been meetings planning for an emergency," Barker told Newshub.  

However, he wants to reassure the public there'll still be water coming out of the taps on level 4.  "There's always enough water to drink, level 4 doesn't mean no water - it just means we... need to tighten our belt and for about 7 days," he said.  

It's an avoidable situation but fixing the leaky pipe network will cost at least $10 billion over a decade. While Wellington Water said it's doing what it can to repair the pipe network,  Taumata Arowai is concerned about how it's managing those challenges.  

"We requested an update from Wellington Water about what actions they, and their council owners, are taking to address the water shortage, demand management, leakage issues and plans to ensure they can deal with challenges like this in future and pre-emptively mitigate the risks.  

"Our conversations to date have been constructive and are continuing," Taylor said.  

He said repeated declarations of drinking water emergencies are not a sustainable approach.  

"Taumata Arowai is exploring the options and tools available under the Water Services Act 2021 so that the underlying issues are appropriately prioritised by Wellington Water and its council owners." 

As the region faces the possibility of tighter water restrictions, Fire and Emergency is also keeping a close eye on their water usage.   

Acting district manager Mike Dombroski said it'll continue to respond to incidents and it was largely business as usual.    

"With our ability to call on additional resources and with the comprehensive pre-planning regarding secondary water supplies and additional tankers, Fire and Emergency is confident we continue to have the ability to extinguish fires in a timely efficient manner." 

However, some operational considerations include reducing training exercises that use reticulated water, and limiting the flushing of fire hydrants, hose washing and appliance cleaning. 

Level 2 Restrictions:  

  • All unattended watering systems are banned - ie. sprinklers and irrigation systems.    
  • You can water your garden by hand anytime, on any day, so long as you don't leave your garden hose or watering device unattended.   

Level 3 Restrictions:  

  • There is a ban on all residential outdoor water use. Businesses can continue to operate as normal, but please be pragmatic and responsible when watering.   
  • Following Level 3 restrictions can reduce the risk of moving to Level 4.   

Level 4 Restrictions:  

  • Water Restriction Level 4 means there is a significant water shortage.   
  • At level 4 there is a ban on all outdoor water use, and we need to reduce indoor water use to ensure there is enough water for everyone.  
  • To help save water, people should stop all outdoor water use, take two minute showers and limit their laundry use to one load per person per week.