City council staff demanded changes to a report into the vulnerability of Christchurch’s drinking water wells. David Williams reports.

Look no further than the title of Bruce Robertson’s report for an example of changes demanded by Christchurch City Council staff.

The council announced in March that it had appointed Robertson, a former assistant auditor-general, to undertake an independent external inquiry into the issues leading to the controversial chlorination of the city’s drinking water for 12 months. His first draft went to council chief executive Karleen Edwards on May 21 but the final version was only released yesterday – almost five months later. That shows how sensitive these issues were treated at its Hereford St headquarters.

The report is called Review into Management of Bore Water Security. On the second-to-last page of the report, it’s revealed that Robertson agreed to it being called a “review”, rather than an “inquiry”, because of the combined feedback from the council’s three waters (drinking, storm and waste) unit – headed by John Mackie.

Further substantive changes as a result of that feedback included deleting entirely one conclusion related to “trust and confidence”. Robertson: “I considered that it did not add to the core conclusions reached and agreed that it was unnecessary.”

(Asked if anyone will be held accountable for the failures identified in the report, and if Mackie retains her trust and confidence, Edwards says: “The report is not about individuals and it is not appropriate for us to comment on individual staff members.”)

Eight new paragraphs were added to the report’s conclusions, replacing a single draft conclusion about the actions of the three waters unit. After considering Mackie’s feedback, Robertson says: “I considered the new paragraphs reflected a fairer conclusion than the one originally drafted.”

The report – which never refers to Mackie by name – doesn’t knock the technical competency of the three waters unit. Rather, it points to what Robertson calls a “failure to communicate” issues it knew about in mid-2017. Because it didn’t escalate the issue, the situation has been “substantially more difficult for the council as a whole”, the report concludes.

Bruce Robertson Report by David Williams on Scribd

On the last working day before Christmas last year, the city council lost the “provisionally secure” status of the Christchurch and Brooklands/Kainga drinking water supplies granted in September 2011, in the wake of that year’s deadly earthquake. Official water assessors decided, following the 2016 Havelock North water scandal, that some of Christchurch’s shallow wells were vulnerable to groundwater contamination. (Most of the city’s well-heads are underground.)

Councillors decided in January of this year to temporarily chlorinate the city’s drinking water – which was met by public resistance, considering the city usually enjoys bug-free water pumped directly from aquifers. Chlorination started in March, although with progressive well-head upgrades, some pump stations are now chlorine-free.

The thrust of Robertson’s report is that the council’s three waters unit failed in multiple ways.

It knew of the risks to well-head security by mid-2017 – creating a public health risk, and threatening the council’s drinking water status – but failed to tell the council’s senior leadership team. “The withdrawal of the provisionally secure status was a surprise to senior management and elected members. It needn’t have been.”

The report recommends, among other things, executive leadership team involvement in the drinking water response, proactive management of drinking water compliance and strengthened risk management within the three waters unit.

In June of this year, the council appointed Helen Beaumont to head its water supply improvement programme. Beaumont reports directly to council boss Edwards.

At a press conference yesterday, council boss Edwards apologised to the public for the council not managing water issues better. She tells Newsroom: “We have reset expectations for escalation so senior managers and elected members are made aware of things much sooner. New processes for reporting have been implemented as well.”

Legal threats

Mackie, who didn’t respond to Newsroom’s request for comment yesterday, has emerged as a key – and litigious – figure in Christchurch’s drinking water debate.

After being criticised for an alleged conflict – by being a council water manager as well as a board member of industry lobby group Water New Zealand – Mackie launched defamation proceedings against former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore. (Last week, the city council confirmed it had quit Water NZ, over the group’s “agenda” to promote mandatory water treatment.)

Newsroom revealed last month that Mackie had threatened legal action over Robertson’s draft report.

The now-released report reveals Robertson met Mackie to discuss the report and “all his feedback was provided after consulting with his legal representative”. The report author’s final meeting with Mackie, on June 29, was attended by Edwards and the council’s city service general manager, David Adamson.

Robertson rejected two claims by Mackie. The first was that the three waters unit was “substantially under-resourced” and that Mackie was involved in civil defence responses in mid-June 2017. Robertson says he wasn’t persuaded by that argument as “the core issue was one of communication and effectiveness”.

The other Mackie request was for the report to “accord proportionate blame on others”. Robertson counters that he wasn’t trying to apportion blame. His expectation was that the three waters unit, as primary managers of the water supply, would have “effective systems for asserting compliance”. When that assertion was “impaired and at risk”, Robertson expected that appropriate communication would be made.

Another interesting titbit in the report’s timeline is that on December 22 last year – before city councillors and the public were informed – Mackie emailed details about the withdrawal of Christchurch’s “provisionally secure” status to the chief executives of Water New Zealand and the Institute of Public Works Engineers Association. On the same day, Mayor Lianne Dalziel instructed Adamson not to send a memo to councillors, but have a full briefing ready when they returned from holiday.

“We have put in place a comprehensive water supply improvement programme, with dedicated resources, that is aimed at upgrading our well-heads as quickly as possible.”

– Karleen Edwards

Robertson’s report outlines failures and mistakes by the council’s three waters unit.

Its regular reporting of bore security issues only covered one of three criteria – the absence of E. Coli – rather than all three. The council didn’t automatically provide updates on its well-head upgrades to the official drinking water assessor. Engineering assessments of the needed upgrades weren’t provided, as a matter of course, to Citycare.

The council’s former water assessment contractors, Pattle Delamore Partners, told council staff in June 2017 that below-ground wellheads it surveyed had issues. Earlier that month, the council’s maintenance contractor, Citycare – a council-owned company – confirmed contamination risks, saying it “cannot guarantee that it can stop all contaminated water entering the well-head, as sealing materials age/change condition”. Yet these problems weren’t elevated to senior management or council committees.

However, the report says even if the issues had been escalated it’s likely the problems would have remained. Christchurch continues to have high-quality water. It also notes the city passed its annual compliance report in August 2017. And while the wells didn’t suddenly become insecure in December last year, the appreciation of the risks became more accurate and better informed, leading to the change in status.

Happy with progress

Medical Officer of Health Alistair Humphrey has been closely involved in the city council’s well upgrades, including a visit to the first repaired well-head in October last year. He says the council’s original programme to seal below-ground well-heads has been superceded by a better one that considers drilling new above-ground bores.

That new programme may take longer than the council’s original 12-month period for chlorination, Humphrey says – a “brave move”. “But I’m happier if they’re safer.”

(Edwards couldn’t provide an exact budget or timeframe for the well-head work.)

Christchurch’s next challenge will be wholesale changes being considered by central government to water management, which are likely to include new drinking water standards. Despite its unique geology, there are fears the southern city will be lumped in with these national changes.

Humphrey: “I remain hopeful that we can have a safe water supply delivered in Christchurch without chlorination. But I don’t know how much that’s going to cost us if there are new standards set.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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