Water meter protest turns from a trickle to a torrent
Kapiti Coast residents are up in arms about their council's proposal to consider water meters in their long-term plan, saying this flies in the face of democratic process, writes Kay Blundell.
If you really want to touch a nerve on the Kapiti Coast, just mention water meters.
In recent years Coasters have had to weather an expressway through the heart of their district, massive council overspending and the controversy over a $44,000 pay rise for its chief executive.
Now the council is proposing to install water meters, sparking another battle.
Only last month, 140 banner-waving protesters stormed into the council's offices and accused it of behaving like Nazis because the council, struggling to reduce water use and slash costs, wants to spend $8 million installing water meters across the district.
A petition calling for a referendum on meters, bearing 7762 signatures, was rejected by the council last year and now the Ombudsman's office has been asked to investigate the council processes.
Meters may be a new battleground but water has been an issue on the coast for decades, since the small seaside holiday destination mushroomed into one of the fastest growing districts in the country, now boasting a population of about 49,000.
As many as 40,000 of those people rely for their water on the Waikanae River, where the volumes depend entirely on how much rain falls in the Tararua Range.
In the past decade, it has become abundantly clear that will not be enough to meet the region's future needs. The question has been what to do about it.
Until last year, the solutions very firmly did not include meters.
Mayor Jenny Rowan first won office five years ago campaigning strongly against meters, saying her top priority was "conservation and catchment" – which then included plans for a costly dam near Paraparaumu that would eventually provide a water supply for the next 100 years.
In 2008, the council voted unanimously against water meters, supporting a dam. Then, before nominations closed for the local body elections in 2010, the council decided the best solution for the next 50 years was a $23.8m Waikanae river recharge scheme – using bores to supplement the river in times of drought – with a dam as the second option.
But as council debt grew and it grappled to fund projects, including a new aquatic centre, civic building and stormwater upgrades, cutting costs became increasingly important – and in June last year it voted to include water meters in its draft long-term plan.
That has outraged residents such as petition organiser Jackie Elliot, who said the council had no mandate to include meters in the draft plan and she has asked the Ombudsman's office to investigate.
If meters were introduced, residents and businesses would pay an estimated $249 fixed charge by the 2015-16 financial year, and about $1.07 per cubic metre of water used.
Residents currently pay about $330 a year for water.
Ms Rowan believes meters are central to halving predicted rates rises at a time when council debt is also forecast to more than double.
"I know this is a hot issue," she said. "But based on the experience of other communities, water meters result in an estimated 25 per cent reduction in peak demand ... this, plus a 5 per cent saving from better leak detection, means the council will not have to find $36m for other water projects for at least 20 years and ratepayers will be spared the burden of that cost."
Councillor Peter Ellis supports meters. "We have people who use a lot of water for their gardens and other people who do not," he said.
"This is a fairer rating system – you pay for what you get."
Kapiti residents use between about 404 and 763 litres a person a day, and the council's aim is to reduce that to 400 litres.
Council staff maintain the issue is too complex for a simple yes/no referendum, but councillor K Gurunathan believes a more indepth consultation process is needed. "When you have a situation where you are not carrying the public with you in a crucial area, you need to restore public confidence," he said. "The democratic process should take precedence. My worry is it is too rushed; there is something seriously amiss here."
Two months ago the council decided to push ahead with an information campaign for every household and an independent telephone survey.
Consultation on the draft plan closes on Thursday and a final decision on metering will be made by councillors on June 28, with district-wide installation expected to take about 15 months.
Water meters are becoming increasingly popular around the country as water conservation becomes an international issue.
Meters have been installed in Tauranga, Nelson, Tasman, Martinborough, Carterton, Central Otago, Auckland and Central Hawke's Bay.
Christchurch has had meters installed but does not charge for water by volume.
About 39,000 meters were installed in fast-growing Tauranga about 10 years ago. The city council found meters resulted in a 30 per cent reduction in peak use. However, their success was accompanied by technical, administrative and logistical challenges.
Meters were introduced in Nelson in 1999 with the aim of reducing summer peak demand as the population steadily grew. The city council reported meters resulted a reduced peak summer demand reduction of at least 37 per cent.
About 18,136 residential customers in Nelson paid an average of $216 (plus GST) for the six months to May last year for their water, sparking concern for some Kapiti residents faced with the prospect of meters.
Nelson City Council is also considering investing in a $2 million irrigation dam, depending on demand.
Carterton found that installing water meters resulted in the town's 2000 properties using one-third less water in the first year the council started charging for water about three years ago.
Every property is allowed 300 cubic metres, after which residents are charged about $1.70 per cubic metre above the limit.
In Central Otago, 95 per cent of homes have water meters installed and the council is proposing to start volumetric water charging from July 1.
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