Tītahi Bay residents are bracing for another summer of polluted water that keeps them out of the surf, expecting more sewage overflows as the Porirua area’s infrastructure struggles to cope with the increasingly frequent heavy rains.
After a deluge, a slick of brown sludge – or worse – often appears on top of the water at Tītahi Bay, the Wellington region’s most popular surf break.
“We just want a plan. Any plan. Right at the moment, the community generally feels like there isn’t,” said Tītahi Bay Surf Lifesaving Club chairperson John Wesley-Smith.
The bay was closed to swimmers from January to May last year due to contamination. Since September, it had suffered 14 sewage discharges from the Porirua City Wastewater Treatment Plant, said Tītahi Bay Residents’ Association representative Michelle Laurenson.
Image from Monique Ford / Stuff
'A drain outlet at the southern end of Titahi Bay beach which is known for sewage overflow.'
Used toilet paper, baby wipes and "visible solid matter" are making repeat appearances at Tītahi Bay whenever heavy rain falls in the area, she said.
“It’s heartbreaking for the locals to see that the infrastructure has been left to just rot and not have the necessary funding put into it. And it’s not OK. The environment is being abused,” Laurenson said.
Wesley-Smith said the problem hurt the surf lifesaving club, with swimmers advised to avoid water for 48 hours after each bout of heavy rain.
Image from Monique Ford / Stuff
'A drainpipe at the southern end of Titahi Bay beach which overflows when there's heavy rain.'
“We teach water confidence and water safety, and this just puts us in a terrible position,” Wesley-Smith said.
The club was forced to abruptly cancel a swim carnival(external link) in November when a large volume of raw sewage began pouring into the sea. Three weeks later, sewage was discharged from a pipe 500 metres from the beach when the region was buffeted by a severe storm causing widespread flooding and slips.(external link)
Retired army major Simon Strombom, a local resident, said the Porirua council had been “asleep at the wheel” when it came to the issue.
“A lot of people come out to the beach on sunny days and think they’re swimming in pristine water. In fact, it’s contaminated more than people realise,” he said.
Strombom said children would also play in the contaminated water, which sometimes had “raw sewage” in it.
The sewerage system is the responsibility of the Porirua City Council, but Mayor Anita Baker said she was just as annoyed as residents about the problem.
Because the stormwater and sewage pipes were inter-connected, heavy downpours would overload the sewerage system with excess stormwater. That water then inundated the plant, Baker said.
“The plant itself is fine, [but] the pipes are done for a one-in-10-year storm, and we’re regularly getting huge [storms],” Baker said.
Wellington Water was carrying out a stormwater pipe catchment study and had administered roving repair teams in Tītahi Bay to fix broken pipes. However, Baker was unable to say when the problem would be corrected.
Baker, who has been mayor since 2019 and a city councillor since 2010, said Porirua’s infrastructure had suffered from under-investment for at least a decade.
“I’m totally committed to getting things fixed in the community, but it just comes down to how fast we can do it and how much money we have to spend,” she said.
Fixing ageing pipes was a problem affecting the entire Wellington region.
Wellington City Council and Wellington Water estimated between $2.2 billion and $4.5b of investment was needed simply to accommodate the city’s population growth over the next 30 years.(external link)
More than half of the city's pipes would need replacing over that period, with a further $578 million needed over the coming decade to clear a backlog of existing issues, Stuff reported in October.
Williams, K 2021, 'As summer gets under way, Titahi Bay swimmers hope sewage pipes can cope', Dominion Post, 5 January, accessed January 22 2021 from stuff.co.nz.