The likely cause of Timaru’s water discolouration and elevated manganese levels, which impacted resident’s drinking water supplies last summer, was a discharge from silage pits.
Timaru’s mayor has pointed the finger of blame for that squarely at the regional council, but Environment Canterbury disputes that.
Timaru ratepayers had been waiting several months to hear the cause of the yellow, brown and green water they had spilling from taps, but on Wednesday – when challenged on the quality of the town’s water during a Select Committee hearing for the Water Services Entities Bill in Wellington, mayor Nigel Bowen did not hesitate.
Discoloured water flows into a Timaru resident’s bath on January 5, 2022.
He told the committee a report showed manganese in the water was due to “an activity in the water protection zone that should not have occurred and shouldn’t have been consented and sits under Environment Canterbury…”
He added that it had cost the district council “a small fortune.”
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Following the hearing, ECan director of science, Dr Tim Davie, confirmed the investigation into the water pollution had been completed, and a report outlining the findings were provided to the district council.
“We found that discharge from silage pits was a likely contributor to the problem, but we could not rule out other possible contributors,” Davie said.
He confirmed silage pits located about 500 metres uphill from the intake had been removed, “after which subsequent water sampling showed reduced manganese concentrations.”
He said the regional council continues to monitor water quality at the site and is now looking at others.
“Our staff are conducting a review of all silage pits near or within community drinking water protection zones across South Canterbury and the region, and will take appropriate action.”
Davie said ECan had not consented the silage pits linked to the pollution.
The silage pits were “installed as a permitted activity”, and regulated by rules in the regional plan, he said.
Griffin Johns, 11, filling his water tank from trucks at Caroline Bay.
The water discoloration, which started in December 2021, was initially blamed on algae but was later linked to high levels of managanese in water sourced from the Ōpihi River.
Millions of litres of water were trucked into the town by the council between December and February, with some business owners forced to truck their own water in.
In June, the Timaru Herald revealed ECan was investigating the issue and had identified a Waitohi landowner “who had agreed to voluntarily move some silage pits … as a precautionary approach.”
In her response to the Herald’s requests under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, ECan’s director of operations Katherine Harbrow said they had been unable to determine the cause of the pollution, and investigations were ongoing.
“We will share the report on the groundwater results once finalised in July,” she said.
The report is yet to be provided.
Bowen appeared before the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee, alongside councillor Barbara Gilchrist, to speak to the council’s submission on the Water Services Entities Bill, which is the key legislation behind the proposed Three Waters Reforms.
Yellow water continued to spill from some taps on the Timaru urban supply in January.
Bowen emphasised the council’s opposition to the reforms, and urged the Select Committee to instead consider the 10 point plan proposed by splinter group Communities 4 Local Democracy.
After the hearing, Bowen said he stood by his interpretation of the report which ECan delivered to his council on August 17.
“With a changing environment and increasing water standards under new water regulations, it’s important that water protection zones are policed for activity that could be detrimental to health of drinking water supplies,” Bowen said.
An example of the discoloured water from one Timaru resident’s home in January 2022.
The Water Services Entities Bill passed its first reading in June, and the select committee and subcommittees are in the process of hearing submissions around the country, before it is returned to parliament for a second reading.
The Bill will establish four publicly owned water services entities that would take over water services from territorial authorities like city and district councils.
The Timaru District Council remains the only council in the country to have pulled out of Local Government New Zealand in response to its handling of the reforms, and is a key player in the legal case taken by Timaru, Waimakarairi and Whangarei district councils against the Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta and the Secretary for Local Government over the reforms.