Friday, 27 February 2015

More of Wellington's drought

Three week ago I wrote about the water situation in the Wellington area. Since then nothing has happened until today when the panic buttons have been hit.

I spoke to Mr. Noel Roberts of Capacity Infrastructure Services on a very poor cellphone line today. He denied that panic buttons were being pressed. When I asked him what the councils were planning to do to save water he bypassed the question and maintained that consumers watering their gardens use "far more water" than councils use flooding the drains (and the streets) with water on a regular basis.

They are using water from the resevoir at not unduly worried as they have enough water to 'take us through to Easter'.  Mr Roberts seemed confident because Wellington 'does not normally' have a drought of this proportion.

In the meantime domestic users are being blamed for profligate use of water despite the fact that no one has (until now) informed them that there is a problem.

Do I expect authorities to act in any way different from total denial of the problem in Brazil or toxic waste water from fracking being pumped into a water system that is rapidly being exhausted?   

No, I do not.

Do I expect them to acknowledge that this drought is not just a local event but part of a global pattern and is unlikely to go away soon?   

No, I do not.

Wellington hits panic buttons on water crisis in midst of drought


Wellington's dry spell threatens water supply
Cut your showers short and ditch the garden hose: Wellington's dry spell looks set to continue, and our water supply is suffering.

27 February, 2015

Wellingtonians are being warned that they have to start conserving water or face all-out sprinkler bans, with the supply for Wellington, Porirua, Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt dropping to worrying levels.

It comes as the capital faces a prolonged dry spell, with a burst of rain this week doing little to help. At Wallaceville, in Upper Hutt, rainfall from February 1-24 was just 13 per cent of the average, and at Wellington Airport it was at 30 per cent.

Niwa forecaster Chris Brandolino said the prolonged dry spell had been good for holidaymakers but not for water supplies.

"Too much of a good thing's a bad thing. You can only have cake so many times before it starts to go to your hips."

River flows in the region have dropped to just a quarter of normal, but residents' water use is still spiking.

In the past week, average use was 155 million litres a day, or enough to fill more than six Olympic-sized swimming pools. That compares with typical winter demand of 130m litres.

Demand was highest on January 27 at 185m litres. That equates to 463l a person - almost two bathtubs more per head than the daily winter average.

The water shortage means the Wainuiomata water treatment plant - one of three serving the region - could face closure within a week.

The plant needs a minimum flow of 80m litres, and before Wednesday's rain was down to 100m. The rainfall brought a reprieve, but forecasts of more dry weather meant it would not last long, Wellington Water operations manager Noel Roberts said.

"Within a day or two we'll be back around 100 [million litres]."

The Macaskill Lakes that hold backup storage were at about 70 per cent capacity, so there was no danger of running out of water, but it would be a struggle to meet continuing high demands if the plant had to be shut, he said.

"Our water sources are already stressed. If we are down a water treatment plant as well, we would struggle to cope . . . We'd like to see water use less than 150m litres per day now."

If each person cut 15l from their usage, that could save 6m litres a day, he said.

"For a three-person home, that's roughly one to two minutes less each in the shower, for example, or three to four minutes less hosing the garden."

Commercial use remained steady through the year, so the increase in use was being driven by people out gardening. Small steps, such as mulching gardens, and aiming water at the roots of plants, would help, he said.

Sprinkler use is already restricted to alternate days in all four cities. If further restrictions are introduced, all watering except by handheld devices will be banned.

Kapiti and Wairarapa have separate water supplies. Kapiti Coast District Council announced last night that it had begun supplementing the water supply for Waikanae, Paraparaumu and Raumati with bore water because of reduced river levels.

It introduced water meters in the district last year and said last month they were having a positive impact on summer water consumption: On peak days, 19.2m litres of water were consumed, compared with 25m last summer.

Roberts said there was an argument for water meters in the Wellington region, but they also required a shift in mindset as some people were simply willing to pay more to use more.

I am reposting my article written three weeks ago about the situation in the Wellington region.

In the meantime, this graph shows water flow in the Hutt river since that date (reflecting the one major fall of rain that we've had over the summer period.

A portrait of Wellington’s drought, 2015

The other day it rained for the first time in over a month. The next day the sun returned and today we have dry gales, so that any moisture will have gone in the matter of hours.

The weather has been uncharacteristically hot for for a normally-cool Wellington and sleep at night has often been elusive.

Just today there was this on Radio New Zealand

January was one for the record books with many of the main centres clocking up high numbers of sunshine hours.

We have been getting steadily more alarmed at the dryness and lately by the low levels of the river which flows not far from out place.

There seemed to be no official response to what seems to us to be a potentially serious situation, especially combined with what we know about global weather patterns and about the onset of rapid climate change.

We decided to check the local response

It turns out there are some restrictions on watering gardens - every second day or by hand hose. On the other hand, on a walk with the dog we found that  the street was being flooded  by Water Services doing its monthly thing of cleaning the drains.

We have gone to some lengths to have a water tank installed to catch and store rain water. However, I have been told that apparently people on the local council are against the idea because, quote, "people will just fill their tanks from the town supply" (while Water Services food the street on a regular basis - sic)

The whole country is in drought, in one form or another as shown by the following map

The Wellington area is set for a record of the driest January, receiving only about 3mm of rain in the month against an average of 70mm.

Looking at our own river levels going down has filled us with alarm, especially as this is happening so early in the season.

The North Island, and Wellington in particular, had its last crisis in February-March -April of 2013, when it got as serious as the region only having a few days water left before having to call on the storage lake.  

This brought about some not-very-draconian water restrictions (although they did have 'water police' patrolling the streets to see if people were watering their gardens illegally. These restrictions were lifted very quickly when it began to look as if the crisis might be over.

The situation in 2013 was as follows:

" The flow in the Hutt River is normally about 5000 litres a second at this time of year, but that dropped to 1300 litres last week. ...The regional council can take water from the river till it reaches a minimum flow of 600 litres a second. But the emergency consent reduces that minimum to 400 litres, providing up to 17 million extra litres a day "

Our response to this is reflected in the article, Wellington water crisis: Drought risk driven by capitalism, below, 

We tried ringing both the local City and Regional council to get information on water flow rates in the Hutt River. After  a day or so, the river ranger for the Hutt River rang us back.  He was very helpful but indicated that the information was not as easy to find as before and that the Regional Council had set up a management company, Capacity to manage water treatment and supply, as distinct from the council which owns the and, the catchment and looks after biodiversity and environmental issues.

Successive councils have encouraged building development  on the river plain and regraded the river solely as a hydrological matter, as a resource for supplying an increasing population with increasing amounts of water. Very little attention has been paid to conservation issues or even to ensuring the future of water supplies.  This is illustrated by the article below, from 2011, which indicated proposals to reduce the minimum water flow to 400 litres/second.

To give an idea, during the crisis of 2013 the flow rates went right down to 1300 litres/sec and the photo illustrates what the Hutt River looked like mid-stream.

This is how the midstream of the Hutt river looked in April, 2013

We were pointed towards the head of hydrology at the Greater Wellington Regional Council who very kindly provided the following comparitive information

Site Description Average flow for Feb 1st 2015 (litres/second) Average flow for January 2015 (litres/second) Average flow for January 2013 (litres/second) Longterm average flow for January (litres/second) Average flow (litres/second)
Hutt River at Kaitoke (NIWA site)
Upstream of water supply weir at Kaitoke
Hutt River at Birchville (NIWA site)
Mid-catchment just upstream of Totara Park footbridge
Hutt River at Taita Gorge
Lowest site in catchment.  Opposite Manor Park golf course
Source: Greater Wellington Regional Council

What this indicates is the river flows at Kaitoke where water is extracted for water supply, on February 1 stood at 1215 litres/ second, which was 22% of the January average of 6710 litres/second.

The figures were similar further downstream.

Although river levels have not yet reached the low levels of 2013, it is unprecedented for river levels to be so low so early in the season (mid-summer).

Clearly there is a problem, especially if we look at the wider global situation.

However no one, at the official level anyhowwants to see the bigger picture, or to acknowledge that there is a problem at all, although several people we have spoken to (as private individuals), acknowledge that this is an unusual situation.

I went back to the Council to ask for some comparative figures for the years 2013 and 2014

Site Description Average flow for February 2013 (litres/second) Average flow for February 2014 (litres/second) Longterm average flow for February (litres/second)
Hutt River at Kaitoke (NIWA site) Upstream of water supply weir at Kaitoke
Hutt River at Birchville (NIWA site) Mid-catchment just upstream of Totara Park footbridge
Hutt River at Taita Gorge Lowest site in catchment.  Opposite Manor Park golf course

Looking at the figures, the flows for January in the upstream part of the Hutt River is at 1215 litres/second quite a bit less than what was measured for February (usually the drier month) in both  2013 and 2014.

What doesn't quite make sense is that the figure given for February, 2013 is 3849 litres/second in the very month when we had a water crisis. Something doesn't compute, but maybe that is just statistics for you.

It did confirm for me that last summer (2014) was also dry (2843 litres/second), so  we can definitely say that the Wellington region has had three dry summers in a row with lower-than-average flows in the river. We are seeing a progressively drying pattern with the 2014 winter being warmer than usual (June set an all-time temperature record) and a very dry spring.

The following graph shows the flow rate for the river at midstream and reflects the one day of rain and a return to previous flow rates

I have just to say as an aside that in terms of water quality, pollution etc. (despite regular toxic algal blooms), the Hutt River, despite the problems, is one of the cleanest in the country, due, largely to the absense of dairy farm activity.


Generally the response to the extreme conditions is that this is a local phenomenon that does not «normally» exceed certain bounds.

However, seen in context this is not the case. 

The New Zealand drought has to be seen in the context of what is happening to weather patterns worldwide as a result of rapid climate change.

In the northern hemisphere the polar ice is melting and losing its albedo (which means the quicker it melts the quicker it gets warmer and the quicker it melts - something that is called a positive feedback.

The Jet Stream has changed its pattern bringing cold, Arctic air south into North America and Europe while zones within the Arctic have been warmer than areas to the south.  On one day I checked it was colder in Munich, Germany than it was in Norway within the Arctic circle.

At the same time warm air from the south has entered the Arctic through the Bering and Farm Straits.

One result of this phenomenon has been the pushing of warmer ocean currents southwards into the Southern Hemisphere. We are now seeing a Pacific that is much warmer than usual despite the fact that the el-Nino predicted for this year did not arrive.

So we have droughts, not only in New Zealand but in Australia, but also a catastrophic thousand year drought in California and the SW of the United States and a drought in southern Brazil (think rain forests) that is threatening the water supplies of Brazil’s mega-city, Sao Paulo.

This phenomenon has been well- described by Paul Beckwith, a climate change scientist from the University of Ottawa.

So, to assume that New Zealand’s drought, and Wellington’s water crisis is just a ‘one-off’ local situations appears, in my mind to be pure wishful thinking.

Those that administer our water supplies need to think what their actions might be if this drought goes on beyond Easter, as it might well do.

The river at normal flow in late spring, November, 2014  

This article from earlier in 2010 expressing concern at proposals to decrease the legal flow rates and the environmental effects of this on the river.

It looks as if these concerns are coming to pass.

Hutt River lower flow bid comes under fire
The Hutt River could be headed for more trouble with toxic algae and deteriorated fish habitats in extremely dry summers.

2 November, 2010

Greater Wellington Regional Council last week formally lodged its resource consent bid to lower the minimum flow of the Hutt River for three summers, apparently without peer review of its latest scientific reports.

Hutt City councillor Max Shierlaw, a scathing critic of the GWRC plan, said the regional council has repeatedly claimed peer review support, and its final application said initial feedback was relatively positive and productive.

However, GWRC general manager of utilities Murray Kennedy told Cr Shierlaw that was wrong. The point of peer review was to get differing points of view, and they were taken into account.

Cr Shierlaw said Mr Kennedy gave the impression the Cawthron reviews were favourable. "And now we know they're not."

Previous peer reviews of GWRC's scientific research were critical of both their methodology and conclusions, but GWRC said their concerns had largely been met.

GWRC said it needed to reduce the minimum river flow during construction on the Kaitoke storage lakes, which had to be drained during work to earthquake strengthen and increase capacity.

The minimum flow would be reduced from 600 litres per second to 400 at the Kaitoke weir. GWRC said it would not be taking more water than currently allowed by its permit, just reducing the summer flow to keep up with the need. It said the effect on the river would be "less than minimal in almost all respects almost all of the time".

That claim is disputed by earlier peer reviews and possibly by a scientific study of the trout fishery decline now being done.

Cr Shierlaw has obtained the earlier peer reviews previously withheld by GWRC, which show frustration with the regional council.

The last of the peer reviews was done two years ago, and stakeholders like Fish & Game said it had heard nothing since from GWRC. The council says consultation with stakeholders continued after that and all were heard and satisfied or objections noted.

Cr Shierlaw said peer reviewers felt the council needed to do more to address the pertinent questions with further, more detailed, studies on the number of days minimum flow would occur.

One reviewer, commenting in May, 2008 on the study of flushing flows and algal growths, said he would not allow his name to be used if his criticisms about methodology and conclusions were ignored. He also said the study authors had been "unwilling" to take on board his previous comments.

The length of dry spells, and the number of freshes, or rainfalls lasting more than two days that wash algae away, are more important than the actual low flow, GWRC said.

However, that is disputed by Fish & Game and the peer reviewers, who said low flow can affect these things.

Toxic algal mats in the Hutt River have resulted in the deaths of at least five dogs which ingested some of the materials. The algae can also irritate human skin.

The 2008 review appears to have morphed into the final application's assessment of algal growth and potential aquatic impacts.

It relies on last summer's river flows, which were never as low as any previous low flow when problems occurred, as in 2007.

Cr Shierlaw said it can not have been peer reviewed, or it would have been included in those released to him.

The final applications said it would be possible to conclude that the proposed reduction in minimum flow at Kaitoke from 600L/s to 400L/s will have a less than minor effect on algal growths in the river if the predicted algal growths are similar to that under the existing low flow conditions, and the existing flushing flow regime will be maintained despite the reduced flow.

However, the earlier peer reviewers, and Fish & Game doctoral researcher Corina Jordan, who is working on a multi-year study of all factors affecting trout, invertebrates and plant life in the river, said the future cannot be predicted from limited historic data, and a wider study is required.

Cr Shierlaw said the length of low flows in dry weather is being underestimated at about 15 days a year, when the earlier peer reviews said there could be as many as 81 instances of low flows, with a maximum number of 43 consecutive days.

Toxic algal mats are said to become a problem after about 30 days of low flow.

"They'd likely be in the peak [water usage days] of summer. I can not imagine what the effect of that would be. That's the kind of information that requires further studies, according to the peer reviewers," Cr Shierlaw said.

But GWRC says the freshes will not be affected by the reduced flow because water abstraction is halted during high flows as the river above the Kaitoke weir is too cloudy to be properly cleared and treated by the Te Marua water plant.

GWRC said the low flow will not affect the river because of water from other tributaries downstream from the weir. The only real problem would be in a super dry year where there are long periods without any rain and little water from the tributaries.

Cr Shierlaw said they have not had that scientific evidence peer reviewed. "Why not?"

The earlier peer reviews say median flow is a better measure than low flow, and more appropriate to maintaining the natural shape of a river and its ecosystem, and the trend in the industry is towards use of "environmental flows".

GWRC said the reduction will mean about the same number of median flow days as low flow days.

Cr Shierlaw said Hutt City has asked [regional water retailer] Capacity for its review of all this, particularly what is the proper flow measurement, low-flow or median-flow.

"We need to have suitable times when the flow must be increased. A blanket low flow is not an acceptable position. There does have to be flexibility."

He said his colleague Margaret Cousins wanted a guarantee that if we started to get algal blooms at a low flow of 400L/m the regional council would put it back up to 600.

"Hutt City Council will have to make a political decision to engage our own work to review all of this, and report back to us whether they think this stands up," Cr Shierlaw said.

The following article covers the crisis of 2013.

Water usage hits lowest point since ban
Water usage fell to its lowest point yesterday since water restrictions came into place earlier this month.

29 March, 2013

Greater Wellington Regional Council confirmed water use across the region reached 119 million litres, 11ML below the daily target of 130ML.

If water usage remained at or below the daily target, tapping into the storage lake at Te Marua would not be required until mid-April.

Four days of rain are forecast from next Thursday April 4, which would be central to the council deciding whether water restrictions could be eased back.

The current ban on outdoor water use will likely not be lifted until the region receives significant rain for a few days.

The second lake at Te Marua was 100 per cent full and could be tapped if necessary, but the council has requested residents to keep up water saving initiatives while the dry weather continues.

Greater Wellington said it is critical that for now, Wellingtonians keep up their water conservation.

They said the water situation was precarious but rivers had not fallen as fast as predicted last week.

Water supply marketing team leader Andrew Samuel said the storage lake at Te Marua was full, at about 1900 million litres - about two weeks supply - and ready to be used if needed.

However, while river levels were much lower than normal, they were not as low as forecasts had suggested, which meant the city supply could still be drawn.

An outdoor water ban in the city was enforced on March 16, and remains in place.

Continued focus on saving water has seen the city meet the 130 million litres per day target set by GWRC for much of the last two weeks.

Greater Wellington Regional Council Chair Fran Wilde says the public reaction to the water situation has been great.

"It's a huge result, although we're not out of the woods yet."

The regions' mayors met for the greater Wellington mayoral forum in Upper Hutt yesterday, and were briefed on the situation.

Chairman and Upper Hutt Mayor Wayne Guppy said staff at all councils were in contact with each other daily.

Water savings during the drought had been ''outstanding'', he said.

''The target's been set at 125 litres per person per day, and we're effectively reaching the targets,'' he said.

In the two days after rainfall on Sunday 17 and Monday 17 March, water consumption went over the target but had fallen back as the drought continued, he said.

Meanwhile, Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington Harbour has re-opened, after being closed from 12pm each day due to fire risk.

While the fire risk was still high, the recent rain, the dropping air temperatures and an increase in morning dew has allowed the island to reopen, the Conservation Department said

This is the only example that I have encountered in the Wellington media of a discussion of Wellington's water crisis

Wellington water crisis: Drought risk driven by capitalism

by Ian Anderson

23 March, 2013

In mid-March 2013, Wellington City Council announced a water crisis. Nigel Wilson, chair of the region’s committee in charge of water supply, stated that Wellington, Porirua and the Hutt Valley had only 20 days of water left. From March 16th, the city announced a ban on outdoor water use by residents, with a $20,000 fine for violating – commercial users faced no restrictions.

This follows a regular pattern whereby the council focuses on curbing residential water usage, whether through attempts at residential metering or outright ban in this case. By implication, the council blames residents for any water shortages.

Non-commercial” and domestic usage

The council generally estimates “non-commercial” usage at around 350 litres per person per day, around half of usage overall. However, “non-commercial” usage includes Council usage, theft, and leaks. Leaks are unaccounted in bulk purchases; in fact around 20% of water in Wellington is unaccounted, compared to a national average of about 10-15%.
Accurate estimates for domestic consumption can be found not in the council figures, but in the nationwide Quality of Life reports. Most recently, the Quality of Life Report ’07 found Wellington domestic consumption between 2001 and 2007 to be on average 170 litres per person per day, on par with other cities. This is less than half of the Wellington City Council’s estimates for “non-commercial” use.

By conflating various uses and misuses under “non-commercial,” this manipulation of statistics gives the misleading impression that residents consume the majority of water.

Climate change and drought

The North Island is suffering from its worst drought in 70 years. At the time of writing Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay are officially in drought, with more likely to follow.

In an opinion piece for South Island paper The Press, Physical Geography and Earth Sciences Professor James Renwick suggests that the risk of drought in Aotearoa/NZ is on the rise. Renwick reports that rising global temperatures, combined with lower soil moisture, could double the risk of drought by the end of the century.

Although Renwick does not explicitly state this, sticking strictly to his geographical field, it’s well-established that greenhouse gas emissions are driving global warming. The underlying causes of increasing drought risk are not residential water use, or even commercial water use, but global warming driven by capitalist industry. Agriculture makes up the bulk of our emissions in Aotearoa/NZ; in a grim irony, it’s also the sector most affected by drought.

Solutions: Socialism or barbarism

Discussion of water conservation often focuses on showers, taps, toilets, residential use. Wellington City Council has previously proposed residential water meters, coupled with a user-pays system. User pays for residential water has triggered community resistance in Auckland and elsewhere, because it restricts access to water based on income. Fightback opposes ‘conservation’ efforts which punish poor families and residents.

Even focusing solely on residential usage, a democratically planned socialist approach could meet immediate needs and curb wastage. Installing rainwater tanks can conserve up to 40% of potable water, without significantly limiting real consumption. Fixing pipe leaks could save up to 20% of usage. Investing in these options is not profitable like user-pays, but would be more effective for conservation.

There are short-term options available for conserving water, both residential and commercial. However, the underlying causes of increasing drought risk are agricultural, industrial, economic. Ultimately, to challenge ecologically destructive practices, we must organise to take democratic control.

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