Wellington’s water woes flow on and on


Dave Armstrong is a playwright and satirist based in Wellington.

OPINION: It’s a disaster, a debacle, a clusterfluoride, a hydrotastrophe! Last week Wellingtonians learned that their water had not been fluoridated for four weeks. The reason? The fluoridating machinery was so antiquated – over thirty years old – that it was unreliable.

It appears it was fluoridating the water inconsistently. Why is that a problem? Although small amounts of fluoride in our water is an excellent way to improve dental health, especially for children, fluoride can be dangerous in large amounts. So, if the machinery is inconsistent and there are large amounts of fluoride in some of our water, that is potentially harmful.

Nevertheless, Wellington Water was at pains to point out that this situation never occurred. Why not? Because as soon as it realised it had a problem, Wellington Water lowered the amount of fluoride they put in the water. Trouble is, it didn’t tell us!

But wait, there’s more! Four weeks of no fluoride is hardly a fluorpocalypse. In fact, as Wellington Water later admitted, it’s been ten months since Wellington Water has fluoridated water in its Te Marua plant and, thanks to the antiquated machinery, there has been inconsistent and low levels of fluoridation for the last four years. Call the fire brigade, Wellington Water’s pants are on fire!

READ MORE:
* Serious failures in Wellington’s fluoride system
* Dentists ‘shocked and appalled’ Wellington water unfluoridated for 10 months
* Wellington Water to hold independent inquiry into fluoridation failure
* No fluoride in Wellington’s water for more than a month

“Our fluoridation machinery is over 30 years old and no longer meets acceptable performance standards,” said GWRC chief executive Nigel Corry. “The outcome of which is a low and inconsistent level of fluoridation in our water, but it’s also an opportunity to invest in an upgraded system.” Well yes, an opportunity in the same way that the recent parliamentary protest was an opportunity for hundreds of Wellington students to work from home.

But wait, there’s even more! Yesterday we learned that Wellington Water’s self-set target of zero sewage overflows was “unachievable”. For every 1000 sewerage connections across the Wellington there have been 1.8 sewage overflows. Also, it took an average of 91 hours for Wellington Water to respond to flooding events. Its target is an hour or less. So it’s nearly 100 times worse than it expected. On balance, I’d call that a fail.

Greater Wellington Regional Council chief executive Nigel Corry observed: “Our fluoridation machinery is over 30 years old and no longer meets acceptable performance standards.”

GWRC/Stuff

Greater Wellington Regional Council chief executive Nigel Corry observed: “Our fluoridation machinery is over 30 years old and no longer meets acceptable performance standards.”

If you have observed the appalling management of our bus network over the years, you can probably see similarities with the current water situation. Remember when the chief executive of GWRC promised to fix the Bustastrophe in a matter of weeks? Remember when our buses were going to improve dramatically because penalties were in place for missed services? Remember when the hub system would make travelling into the city easier?

Wellington Water, I suspect on the advice of highly paid private consultants, seems to have used spin and set wildly unrealistic targets in order to keep its grumpy stakeholders – the citizens of Wellington – happy.

It is mind-boggling how dreadful Wellington Water’s communications has been. Remember that this is the organisation that spent over $350k in 2020 on private PR consultants to deal with the public furore over leaky pipes. This is the organisation that described the plethora of badly maintained pipes bursting as “bad luck”. This is the organisation whose staffer sent a South Coast resident genuinely concerned about water an emotive tirade, followed by a grovelling apology.

Wellington Water “... spent over $350k in 2020 on private PR consultants to deal with the public furore over leaky pipes”, Dave Armstrong writes.

KEVIN STENT/Stuff

Wellington Water “… spent over $350k in 2020 on private PR consultants to deal with the public furore over leaky pipes”, Dave Armstrong writes.

In the latest debacle, it seems that Wellington Water is paying a lot of money for people to cover up snafus rather than a little money for people to tell the truth.

What is also mind-boggling is that the cause of the fluorotastrophe is not really the fault of the current Wellington Water management. If, four years ago, it had gone to its respective councils and stakeholders and said, “your investment in new fluoridation equipment has been so woeful over the years that we’re not going to fluoridate the water at proper levels until it is safe to do so,” then it would have had the support of Wellington’s citizens, and it would have been the rates-cutting politicians ducking for cover.

So far, Wellington Water’s board, local body politicians, dental health experts and even Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall have expressed their frustration at Wellington Water’s management, and the organisation has launched an independent inquiry.

Dave Armstrong: “Call the fire brigade, Wellington Water’s pants are on fire!”

Stuff

Dave Armstrong: “Call the fire brigade, Wellington Water’s pants are on fire!”

Let’s hope the inquiry doesn’t just find out what happened and who is to blame, but recommends action that will ensure a fluorodisaster doesn’t happen again. Although I generally support the Three Waters reform, I concede that some of those opposing it make some good points. But Wellington Water’s latest revelations makes me think that reform can’t come soon enough, whatever its faults.

Wellington City Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons is one of those deeply frustrated with the last fluorotastrophe. “What it speaks to is a culture within Wellington Water that doesn’t see itself as an important public entity, but instead seems to operate on some kind of corporate or commercial model, which is totally unacceptable for a public agency.” Hear, hear. This inquiry needs to roll heads responsible for the misinformation, and get it back to being a public body serving its people.



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