Application for waste water discharge

Update:  10 August. This application has rightly caused huge concern: I’ve had heavy criticism about the lack of detail in the proposed draft conditions of this consent application. Personally, I agree with a good part of that. I wrote this opinion piece for our local newspaper about it which is an update on the following article.  

Asking for consent to throw sh*t into our almost pristine lakes and rivers has caused outrage. I am delighted to see this concern for our water and would love us to be able to channel that sentiment into ongoing improved behavior around what we put into our drains, and support for the spending we need to do to drive continued improvement.  It’s also important for me and my commitment to transparency and collaboration that you understand what is going on and what we are trying to do about it.  I would also request that you file your own submission and have included details below about how to do that.  Submissions close July 12, so today is a good day to do it.  It’s a complex issue so I’ve gone through all documentation, sought advice and am offering here my view of what we are trying to do, what we are doing, and why.

This resource consent application is facing up to an ongoing, difficult issue by bringing that issue into the public arena so we can own it and deal with it. Overflows are accidental.  These ‘accidents’ would not be prevented by capping growth as some people have suggested, nor are they the result of an aging or unfit system as others claim.  Overflows happen when pipes are blocked by foreign objects (ie anything that’s not pee, poo or toilet paper), when contractors strike a pipe, when tree roots break pipes or when a big storm overwhelms the system.

We are not asking for permission to have accidents. We are asking to highlight the issue and for a partnership route to fix what we can.  The best explanations of that is probably in this Crux article  and in this indepth RNZ story  (includes interviews with Guardians of Lake Wanaka and our Chief Engineer Ulrich Glasner).

Currently when we have an overflow, we cop a fine from the Otago Regional Council (ORC), pay it and move on.  What we are asking for is to formalize the overflows that happen so we can deal with them. We are asking ORC to hold us to account (beyond just issuing a fine) and for us to in turn hold ORC to account in the management of our water.  This consent, if issued, will put us on the right side of the rules so we can in turn hold people to account and to direct investment into the areas of most impact. If it’s not issued, we’ll continue to drive improvement as we are doing now and pay the fines when ‘accidents’ happen.  Huge sums (105m) have been allocated in the 2018-2028 Long Term Plan towards continuing to raise the standards of our waste and stormwater infrastructure– more about that shortly.

Actual overflow analysis

Between July 2015 and November 2018, 17 overflows have gone to water – so around 4 times a year.  There were other waste overflows that have gone to ground but I won’t discuss those here.   The table below details all overflows.

wastewater overflow table

As shown above, of the 17 to water, the causes were: fat poured down drains (3 occurrences), foreign objects put into the system (4 occurrences) and tree roots breaking pipes (4 occurrences).  There were also four unidentified events (other), one broken pipe and 1 ‘choke’ event (private infrastructure – may or may not have resulted in waste to water).

Tree roots

So, four occurrences – tree roots – may be improved with more proactive inspections and planning. Identifying tree root issues will take time – some cases will require removing trees where they cannot be managed. The idea is to apply best practice and scale that accordingly.

I asked our staff to detail how we are approaching this issue:

“We can complete inspections using CCTV cameras. In the past that has been a relatively reactive process, but we are in the process of setting up a proactive CCTV programme however whilst $6-8 a metre to inspect the pipes sounds cheap, over a 427km network that is $3.4m to cover the entire network once. Therefore we will prioritise inspections using the pipe criticality score whereby higher criticality pipes will be inspected more frequently. We hope to have that programme up and running in this financial year. Given the costs for CCTV and the regularity of inspection that would be required, I don’t believe there it would be prudent to target zero overflows due to tree roots, but we can focus inspections on the higher criticality pipes and ‘repeat offenders’ are captured through our overflow response processes and added to a preventive maintenance schedule for root cutting and/or repair.”

Fat and wet wipes – a disastrous combo

Seven overflow events happened because humans put things into the waste system that aren’t poo, toilet paper or pee.   These will not be fixed by infrastructure.  They will be fixed by education.

As a start to that:

Never put wetwipes, nappies or so called ‘flushable’ wipes into the toilet – they may ‘flush’ but they will combine with fats and other no-no’s to form ‘fatbergs’ that can cause overflow. There is no flushable wipe that can go in our system except for toilet paper.

Never throw fat down the sink. And never try to stop fat from gumming up your own pipe by following it with hot water. Fat disposed of like this combines with other no-no’s to form ‘fatbergs’ that can cause overflow.

Trade waste and you

If you are a restaurant or café worker/owner – make sure your grease traps are regularly cleaned and maintained.  The trade waste bylaw and the officer in charge are your friends.  Know the by-law. This bylaw will enable prosecution of commercial businesses when stuff other than pee, poo and toilet paper is allowed to enter the system.

If you are in the building industry make sure you are careful to ensure every drain is properly sealed so no gravel or other stuff can get in.  When gravel and other building stuff gets into the system, it combines with fats and wet wipe type things to make the dreaded ‘fatbergs’.


There are some events where we can’t find the cause. The contractors have the jet the pipe to remove the blockage and then catch the offending matter in a downstream manhole – sometimes (unlike the Black Caps) there will be a dropped catch, or the matter breaks down so much that it just flows through. However, we can improve and that is a huge part of the consent to improve reporting and be more transparent.

Long Term Plan

This is where money is allocated to address these issues.

The $105m in the plan – to be spent over the next 10 years – can be considered in two parts (thanks again to our staff for clarifying for me).

  1. 45% of the capital is identified to service growth, which responds to the capacity issues people are concerned about. Our capacity and pipe condition is considered reasonable and we generally don’t get overflows due to stormwater ingress to the wastewater system because of this. (note: in the table above there were no incidences of stormwater ingress). We have projects in place to continue and improve monitoring the network condition and performance.
  2. Several projects in the LTP will significantly reduce the impact of overflows through reducing the volumes of wastewater that flow near the lake and highly public areas e.g:
    • Queenstown Recreation Ground Pump Station – reducing the flows through the Marine Parade Pump Station
    • North Wanaka Wastewater – New pump station to reduce flows through the Lakeside Drive (Bremner Bay) Pump Station, Lakside Drive and the Wanaka CBD / Dungarvon St Pump Station.

Make a submission

So there it is.  Given this information, hopefully you can see your way clear to direct your anger, passion and outrage towards solutions.

Please do put a submission in.  I have no concern about whether you support or oppose.  This is about showing community concern and making sure that concern gets to the commissioner table.  If you don’t have time to write your own submission but you think Sustainable Queenstown might represent your views, they have a researched submission which you can use to base your own submission on – here.

Here’s how to make the submission.  You can ask for a form if you like, but don’t need to. You can use the template froom Sustainable Queenstown. Here again is the consent application.  You need to include the following points in your submission.

  • the name of the applicant and the application (file) number (The applicant is Queenstown Lakes District Council. The application number is RM19.051).
  • your reason for making the submission
  • whether your submission supports or opposes the specific parts of the application, or wish to have them amended
  • the decision you wish the Council to reach
  • whether you wish to speak at any hearing
  • the conditions you feel should be imposed if the consent is granted.

Send your submission to

About alexaforbes

My work is about acting now for a better future. I am very interested in exponential tech and exponential environmental impacts and have completed research in this area. I work towards positive societal and economic change through facilitating Leadership for Change programmes at CapableNZ and also as an elected representative for the Dunstan Ward of Otago Regional Council. At Scope Media I provide mentor-ship and strategic governance advice. Prior to these roles, I worked for many years as a communicator - as a journalist and later as director of a PR company.
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