Thursday, February 1, 2024

Unraveling the Wakefield Water Crisis - January 2024


Wakefield's original Post Office built in 1909. It was officially opened in 1910 and operated as such until its closure in 1990. Photo credit R. Therkleson.

"From Turbidity to Clarity: Navigating Wakefield's Water Challenge"


In the wake of an intense rainfall event on January 5, the tranquility of Wakefield was disrupted by an unexpected water crisis. Elevated turbidity levels triggered the shutdown of the Wakefield Water Treatment Plant, prompting swift responses from council staff and contractors. As the community grappled with muddy water concerns, the intricate network of water supply faced unprecedented challenges, leading to an intriguing series of events and responses.


In the aftermath of intense rainfall on January 5, the Wakefield community faced an unexpected water crisis when elevated turbidity levels triggered the shutdown of the Wakefield Water Treatment Plant. Council staff and contractors swiftly responded to the challenge, initiating emergency measures and launching investigations into the complex issue.

The Wakefield water supply, filtered through gravels from the Wai-iti River, flows through two infiltration galleries in the Treatment Plant before reaching the well. Unfortunately, the surge in turbidity, akin to muddy water, traversed this entire system, necessitating immediate action.

Wakefield residents, albeit understandably concerned, were urged to conserve water during this period. The community temporarily relied on treated water from the Brightwater supply, prompting a similar call for water conservation from Brightwater residents.

On January 8, an additional complication surfaced as a blue/white substance was discovered in the Wakefield Infiltration Gallery. Council statements highlighted a meticulous testing regime aimed at identifying 150 potential contaminants. Mike Schruer, Water and Wastes Manager, emphasised the importance of water-saving measures on January 10, particularly in Brightwater and Wakefield, acknowledging the localised supply issue unrelated to drought.

Facing capacity challenges even though water was already being supplemented by the Brightwater scheme and the Hope part of the scheme being supplied by the Richmond scheme. Compromised pumps and water capacity issues prompted Council to seek replacement equipment. By January 19, investigations pointed to naturally occurring Aluminium in silt as the likely cause of the issue. Council gradually restored the Wakefield Water Treatment Plant, ultimately lifting water restrictions on January 20.

On January 12, Council's statement indicated that urgent analysis of taken samples was underway, with results expected the following week. However, by January 18, Council's water pumps were strained, overheating two out of three pumps, leading to a request for residents to restrict water use to essential needs.

Fortunately, amid the crisis, test results for the blue/white substance came back clear, allowing Council to initiate the reopening of the Wakefield Water Treatment Plant and restore the network to its original system. The subsequent announcement on January 20 declared the lifting of large-scale water restrictions on Wakefield and Brightwater residents, transitioning to Phase B.

Questions put to Waters and Wastes Manager Mike Schruer and his Answers:

I asked Tasman District Council Waters and Wastes Manager Mike Schruer some questions in relation to the water issues in Wakefield to try and obtain a deeper understanding of what occurred.

These questions aimed to uncover more detailed information about the incident, addressing aspects such as water quality assurance, infrastructure history, community involvement, environmental impact, contingency planning, communication strategies, public health monitoring, and collaboration

1.           Water Quality Assurance:


Can the Council provide specific details about the unknown blue/white substance, its origin, and any potential health implications associated with it?


“Evidence is pointing towards the discolouration being caused by naturally occurring Aluminium in silt that appears to have entered the groundwater following the very heavy rainfall that occurred just prior to the event. Testing results showed no health-significant contaminants, but Aluminium was at 0.38ppm. The Maximum Allowable health level for aluminium in drinking water is 1ppm however above 0.1ppm, discolouration may occur.”

2.           Investigation Process:


Can the Council provide insights into the ongoing     investigation process regarding the blue/white substance?


“Council is testing further samples from the well for Aluminium, now that it is back in production, along with samples taken from nearby surface water streams. Quality results will be compared which may allow more definitive conclusions to be drawn as to the origin of the temporary discolouration. Assuming that silt associated with high rainfall was the cause, it will not be possible to prevent a recurrence in the same or similar circumstances. Medium-term, the current Wakefield source waters will be replaced by a deeper and more resilient bore field at Clover Road. In what is known as the Waimea Plains Water Plan, this new bore field will supply the Brightwater, Wakefield and Eighty Eight Valley schemes.”

3.           Historical Maintenance and Inspections:


What were the results of the most recent maintenance inspections conducted on the Wakefield water supply infrastructure before the discovery of the substance?


“Routine inspections did not find anything unusual prior to the event.”


Have there been any historical issues or maintenance lapses that might be related to the current challenges?


“No, not as far as the colour is concerned.”

4.           Water Supply Infrastructure Aging:


How old is the infrastructure, specifically the Wakefield water treatment plant and the infiltration gallery?


“The infiltration gallery was installed in early 1986 and the water treatment plant had an interim treatment upgrade last year to meet compliance standards until the Waimea Plains Water Plan is completed.”


To what extent has aging infrastructure contributed to the current challenges, and what plans are in place for the maintenance or replacement of aging components?


“The current challenge with discolouration is not as a result of the aging infrastructure. The infiltration gallery is at end of life and the Waimea Plains Water Plan will consolidate the Brightwater, Wakefield and Eighty-Eight Valley water supply schemes into a single bore field at Clover Road West and water treatment plant nearby.”

5.           Community Input and Involvement:


How has the Council involved the local community in decision-making processes related to water supply issues?


“Water infrastructure projects were part of the previous Long-Term Plan 2021-2031 and more detail regarding the Waimea Plains Water Plan will be provided in the Long Term Plan 2024-2034. This event was an operational matter that has been dealt with by staff and contactors without input from the community.”


Were community members consulted or informed about potential risks or infrastructure changes prior to the incident?


“No, none of it was planned so there was nothing to consult on.”

6.           Environmental Impact:


What measures are being taken to assess and mitigate any potential environmental impact resulting from the shutdown of the Wakefield Water Treatment Plant and the use of alternative water sources?


“We remained within our consent limits for the Brightwater take, therefore unlikely to be environmental impact on alternative water sources.”

7.           Contingency Planning:


How robust were the Council's contingency plans in place for water supply disruptions in Wakefield?


“Very robust, no one ran out of water, and we complied with consent conditions.”


Are there lessons learned from this incident that will inform the improvement of future contingency plans?


“Monitoring of equipment when temperatures are high, preferably installing cooling equipment in pump stations likely to run for excessive hours. Otherwise  (all) worked well and water shortage lasted less than half a day.”

8.           Communication Protocols:


Can the Council elaborate on its communication protocols during water supply crises?


“The ability to get immediate notifications to residents was affected by the short timeframe (around half a day) of the situation – both in discovering the issue and resolving it.”

“When there is an immediate need, as was the case here, all manner of social media -  Facebook, all related community pages not just the Council’s, Antenno as well as the Council’s website, are activated, as well as the distribution of a media release to relevant local and national outlets – all of these were utilised and engaged as soon as staff and contractors were made aware of the situation.”


“Radio is also a regular go-to method of communication. In recent years, a shift to national-based slots for a number of stations has meant the ability to get instant messaging locally has reduced. We have been afforded some unscheduled air-time in instances such as the August 2022 weather event, however this was while the region was under a State of Emergency.”


“We have been also advertising the water restrictions through this medium in recent weeks, however the process to organize specific messaging would have exceeded the overall timeframe of the situation.”

“Nonetheless, we value this medium and can explore opportunities to increase communications via this method.”

“The size of the combined Brightwater/ Wakefield area affected meant extensive doorknocking was impractical within the timeframe also.”

“If there is any length in the issue we have the ability to erect large signs and roadside illuminated billboards in the areas affected.”

9.           Public Health Monitoring:


What ongoing measures will be implemented to monitor public health in the wake of the water supply challenges?


“Due to testing results no further action. Our routine sampling meets required standards and is robust.”


How frequently will the water be tested, and what benchmarks will be used to ensure its safety?


“Wakefield source and treated water is tested in alignment with the requirements prescribed in the Drinking Water Quality Assurance Rules. If the turbidity of source water deteriorates to a level where disinfection of microorganisms cannot be guaranteed, as occurred with the discolouration event, the plant will shut off and not allow insufficiently treated water to flow to consumers.”

10.         External Expert Consultation:


Has the Council sought advice or consultation from external experts or organisations with expertise in water quality and treatment during this incident?


“We have experts in our in-house Drinking Water Quality and Safety team, we have a Water Treatment Engineer, and we have access to other water quality staff in the regional side of Council in addition to external laboratory staff.”


How does the Council plan to leverage external expertise in the resolution and prevention of similar issues? 


“We have it covered with our in-house team but we can call in specialist consultants if required.”


The insights from Waters and Wastes Manager Mike Schruer, Tasman District Council, provide invaluable perspectives on navigating the complexities of the crisis and safeguarding the community's water supply. Despite criticism from some in the community no one went without water and this may have been due to the community response.

Fortunately when the pumps became severely compromised due to a high level of use, the test results as part of our initial investigation had become clear. 

Council staff and contractors worked tirelessly throughout the night at one stage to begin the process of re-opening the Wakefield Water Treatment Plant and restore the Wakefield network to its original system. 

Their swift and dedicated efforts resolved the immediate issues, ensuring that water was restored to the community. This collaborative response underscores the commitment of the council to address challenges promptly and efficiently, showcasing the dedication of those involved in our water management.

I extended the inquiry to Tasman Chief Executive Officer Janine Dowding. 

In extending my inquiry to Tasman Chief Executive Officer Janine Dowding. She shared her insights, stating, "We recognise that water infrastructure is a prevalent concern nationwide, but it would be inaccurate to draw parallels to this situation, which was beyond the Council's control. The prompt actions of staff, contractors, and the community stand as a genuine positive in this scenario."

Janine Dowding had previously expressed her gratitude in Council press releases, stating, "I am immensely grateful for the swift efforts of Council and its contractors in pulling out all the stops to address the situation. Coupled with the community's cooperation, we saw an immediate reduction in water use, allowing the reservoir to maintain levels and provide a buffer for any emergencies."

She emphasised the significance of community support, stating, "We can't emphasise enough the value of community support at times like this – those actions make a huge difference." Reflecting on the extraordinary circumstances, she noted, "While this was an extraordinary set of circumstances ultimately beyond the control of the Council, as with any situation of this magnitude, we will draw lessons and consider whether we can take additional steps to increase resilience."

Looking ahead, Janine Dowding highlighted, "The planned water infrastructure upgrades over the next 3-5 years – proposed in the draft 2024-34 Long Term Plan – will bring security of supply to the Brightwater, Wakefield, and 88 Valley area, subject to funding."


In conclusion, the insights from Waters and Wastes Manager Mike Schruer, Tasman District Council, offer invaluable perspectives on successfully managing the complexities of the crisis and safeguarding the community's water supply. The collaborative efforts of council staff, contractors, and the community underline their commitment to resolving challenges promptly and efficiently.

Despite initial complications and community concerns, the crisis saw a swift resolution as the test results became clear. Council staff and contractors worked tirelessly to reopen the Wakefield Water Treatment Plant, ensuring the restoration of the original water supply system. The diligent response not only resolved immediate issues but showcased the dedication of those involved in water management.

Extending the inquiry to Tasman Chief Executive Officer Janine Dowding provided additional insights. Her acknowledgment of the community's cooperation and the council's swift actions highlights the pivotal role played by both parties. As the community and council reflect on this event, Dowding emphasises the importance of drawing lessons and considering additional measures to enhance resilience.

Looking forward, the proposed water infrastructure upgrades outlined in the upcoming Long Term Plan signify a proactive approach to secure water supply for the Brightwater, Wakefield, and 88 Valley area in the years to come. The Wakefield water crisis, while challenging, serves as a testament to the resilience of the community and the proactive measures taken by the council to address unforeseen circumstances.

Thanks to Tasman District Council and Tasman Residents.

Pigeon Post News, Richmond.

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