People, water and trees in Titirangi

Auckland’s fresh water provider — Watercare — recently announced a plan to build a new water treatment plant in the Titirangi neighbourhood of Woodlands Park. As a resident of Titirangi, I’m not yet sure how it will affect me directly: I live about a mile away from the site. But it’s certainly going to affect some of my friends. They’re feeling angry, scared and pretty let down by a host of bureaucrats and politicians.

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A small number of the 250 – 300 people who showed up to demonstrate their frustration outside Watercare’s existing treatment plant in Woodlands Park Rd, Titirangi.

The decision came as no surprise. Their other option — in Oratia, just over the hill — was successfully fought down by the locals there. But I don’t believe that had much to do with it: the Oratia site was never going to fly. It wasn’t owned by Watercare; it was owned by the people who live on it. The Titirangi site is owned by Watercare, nobody lives on it, and it’s already got a treatment plant on it, the expiry of which is causing the problem in the first place.

But that in itself means little to the people who live there. The people in the quiet, bush clad streets surrounding the site are upset. They fear that something horrible is on its way. They fear that the new plant will destroy valuable forest and that it will generally be a nuisance to live close to.

So, will it? My problem here is that I just don’t know, and I should. We all should. The Board’s recommendation is a long, jargony document, but has this to say:

 

There are some negative effects during [construction], particularly for people’s way of life, however given the smaller number of people affected, the nature of the community and accessibility for that community and the existence of a WTP in a similar location these effects have been assessed as being generally lower than for the Parker Road options.

“Way of life”? “Nature of the community”? The generous view of this rather appalling statement is that Watercare have assessed that people don’t mind living around the existing plant, so they probably won’t mind living around a new treatment plant.

My problem with that is that I don’t know what the new one’s going to be, or what the construction of it will involve. In illustrations, the new plant looks a lot bigger. It will also occupy both sides of the road, which it doesn’t at present.

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What you can’t see here is two large cylindrical reservoirs, 8m high, on the left hand side of Woodlands Park Rd.

It’s also not entirely clear to me why Woodlands Park impacts fewer people than Oratia.

There’s also this:

The Manuka Road [i.e. Woodlands Park] site would result in the greatest adverse effects, both landscape and visual, primarily due to the clearance of significant indigenous vegetation.

“Greatest adverse effects”? So that’s ok, then.

Just that the indigenous vegetation is a large part of why anyone comes to live in Titirangi in the first place. The place is practically crawling with wildlife, nearly all of which lives inside indigenous vegetation.

There’s miles more, but I’ll leave that for your own delectation.

The Auckland Botanical society did a site assessment, independently, so I optimistically rang them up. They concluded that about a third of the 4ha site consists of large and valuable podocarps (things like kauri), about a third is less valuable kanuka and fern, and another third is botanically worthless weeds growing on empty residential sites, formerly used to house employees. They reckoned if Watercare can steer clear of the podocarps, the site should be sweet. That sounded promising.

But then the author of the report told me that he also happened to live in Oratia, and was closely involved in their campaign. He included his report — recommending Woodlands Park — in his submission to Watercare. So while his report may be completely valid, it’s a bit hard for those on this side of the hill to read at face value.

Apparently there is also a couple of species of endangered native lizard living in the bush that Watercare would have to remove. Whether the Botanical Society’s report makes any informed reference to these I don’t know.

There’s screeds more in the opinion, but I’ll leave that to you. Basically, Watercare is progressively infuriating everybody on both sides of the southern Waitakere ranges.

I like the Green Party’s take on it, which is that getting the neighbourhood onside is a good idea, and that requires two things:

  • An independently facilitated community working group
  • Independently contracted site assessments for ecology, neighbourhood impact and health and safety (covering things like heavy vehicle traffic)

The independent part is really what counts. So far, practically all we have to go on  is what Watercare choose to tell us, and even that is coded in bureauspeak. But if Watercare want to get on with their neighbours they need to lift their game.

Why not make it a collaborative design project? The people in the neighbourhood know what they want. Watercare know what they want. Add to that some quality input from a few disinterested specialists, including facilitation, and I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

Because with such a process, we’d eventually discover several things which we don’t currently know:

  • What is the best model of distributing potable water to Auckland?
  • What is the best type of location for this service?
  • What design will accommodate the diverse needs of the project’s various stakeholders?

That doesn’t mean handing over control of a vital piece of infrastructure to the locals. Rather, it means treating consultation as a process of learning and discovery, which can be easily harnessed to a better outcome for everyone.

I don’t think it’s fair or realistic to expect local folks to trawl through 20 pages of single spaced jargon to understand what’s happening in their own neighbourhood.

Watercare have indicated that they’re willing to convene a stakeholder group but I’ll be very surprised if they take any notice of it. It needs independent advice and facilitation. Auckland Council needs to do everything possible to ensure that our water provider continues to work proactively with the communities it serves.

UPDATE: There’s an open meeting on Wednesday, 14 June, at 7pm, Woodlands Park Primary School.

UP-UPDATE (following the public meeting last night):

  • Everyone’s talking in different languages. Local residents of anywhere aren’t necessarily schooled in the art of designing infrastructure, and Watercare is clearly ignorant of any notion of community leadership or ecological management.
  • Nobody in any position of authority is doing anything to connect these narratives. Not the local board. Not Council. Not Government. There is a total leadership vacuum, which benefits those with the deepest pockets.
  • With Havelock North still recovering, and Woodlands Park now emerging, this seems like a good time to ask: how useful is the reticulated model of water supply? Again, nobody in any position of authority is doing so.
  • One resident told us that he’d asked WaterCare why they’d excluded a site next to one of their Waitakere damns. They told him that if something went wrong, they risked a chemical spill into the damn. That’s cold comfort for the several thousand people living downhill from both the existing and the new site.
  • Local Board chair Greg Presland and Auckland Councillors for Waitakere Ward Penny Hulse and Linda Cooper all said more or less the same thing: we’re sympathetic, we can listen and relay your concerns, but otherwise, this community is on its own. Lawyer up and break out the climbing harnesses, folks.
  • Greg also mentioned that this will be a good test of the Waitakere Ranges Protection Act. Considering he was one of its architects, this statement doesn’t exactly ring with confidence.
  • There is a ray of light. WaterCare is forming some kind of community working group. For that to have any credibility, it will need three things: wide and balanced membership of both experts and residents; independent facilitation; and the mandate to influence the outcome.
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3 thoughts on “People, water and trees in Titirangi

  1. Well put! I’d broaden the need for consultation to a wider consideration of why we need greater treatment capacity when there is next to zero effort in Greater Auckland on water conservation or management. A bigger plant may not be needed if we treated water from the tap as a taonga and council supplied and installed rain water buts for grey water, or at the very least their installation in new builds or during significant renovations.

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  2. Good point Kath. It’s very clear that the way we think about water infrastructure (both in Auckland and as a nation) is woefully retarded.

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