Imagine you’re having a bath in nice clean water. While taking that bath, people keep coming along and taking out a cup of water, causing your level to drop. Others get in the bath with you, so the water gets dirtier and dirtier. At some stage you add some fresh water to the bath – rain – but still people keep getting in and making it dirty, or taking more water out. You can imagine the state of the water at the end of the bath. That’s the Waikato River.
At council I look after infrastructure that takes water and discharges it into the coastal environment and rivers, like wastewater treatment plants and geothermal energy sites. We issue resource consents for people to take water and discharge to water.
Basically, people come to us and say what they want to do and we tell them what they need to do if a resource consent is required – the list of dos and don’ts to achieve their aims, or whether their proposed activity can be undertaken as a permitted activity without a consent. And of course we monitor them to make sure they are obeying the rules.
Our priorities are the large sites – wastewater treatment plants are the highest risk sites. We have prosecuted a consent holder for a discharge of sewage sludge that went straight into the river. Birds were killed, fish were killed and water quality compromised.
What went wrong? Who didn’t do what they were supposed to do? What’s wrong with the system, and can it be improved? That’s what we have to sort out. In this case, we got them to put in some storm water gates so they can prevent any sewage or other spills from leaving the site in future.
The number of spills we have has dropped over time which is good, and with the improvement in water quality of the treated wastewater by operators we are seeing less failing samples. Compliance is improving. We have better systems in place and so do the consent holders.