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Councillor Garrick Emms said this map presented by Wellington Water in a council meeting suggested they were “back at square one” regarding Featherston’s wastewater discharge options. PHOTO/WELLINGTON WATER

SWDC frustrated with lack of progress over wastewater

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A parallel consent process for Featherston’s beleaguered Wastewater Treatment Plant has South Wairarapa District councillors frustrated and citing deja vu.

A report by Wellington Water [WW] at a South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] assets and services committee meeting proposed the treatment plant pursue parallel short-term and long-term consent with the regional council.

The plant is operating on an extended expired consent from Greater Wellington Regional Council [GWRC]. The extension is due to end in 2023.

However, councillors Alistair Plimmer and Garrick Emms were dumbfounded by WW’s interim solution, which maintained primary discharge to Donald’s Creek and land-based irrigation trials at Hodder Farm.

“I’m concerned that we are actually rewinding the clock. There’s no real detail about what the proposal is going to be,” Emms said.

“We all know that 2017 and 2019 [consent applications] were both unsuccessful.

“I’m also very concerned [about] how I’m going to present this sort of document to the Featherston community and say, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve actually been playing with this for five years, and we are now back to the original 2017 proposal.’

“I’m not convinced we have a new solution on the table.” He said on Sunday that it felt like they were “back to square one”.

SWDC chief executive Harry Wilson said the council had subsequently learned the 2017 consent to discharge irrigated wastewater would have failed had it been pursued.

He said it was sensible to withdraw the consent in March 2020, capping the cost to date at $2.8 million.

WW said it had been looking for new solutions to manage Featherston’s wastewater since June 2020.

However, a shortlist of options presented to the district council in February 2021 was deemed too costly.

Network development and delivery manager Tonia Haskell said WW were between a “rock and a hard place” last year, after offering four “extraordinarily expensive” options.

She said council officers agreed in a December 2021 meeting to look at alternatives and explore options for a short-term consent that fit within the $16m long-term plan [LTP] budget.

“The short-term consent option lifts the pressure off having to commit to those big expensive treatments,” she said.

Haskell said trials to reduce pollutants were under way at the Featherston plant, and land-based irrigation tests would soon begin.

Councillors, however, objected to the method arrived at in what some labelled a “secret” meeting.

“So, we have been sitting on that since December, and now we are in April,” Emms said.

“I am worried about the amount of money that has been put into this exercise, and we don’t know what we are talking about.”

He said the lack of costings for the dual new consents was “concerning”.

Report author and WW project leader Linda Fairbrother said the irrigation trials would show what the land “can and can’t take and see what it is actually capable of”.

She said WW and the council aimed to “maximise the assets we already have”.

Plimmer said the council and WW were searching for the “Holy Grail” without knowing what GWRC considered an “improvement”.

“We are going ‘will this do?’

“Every time we do that, it costs money,” he said.

Independent consulting engineer Simon Cartwright said without a universal standard or target from GWRC, the process to improve discharge was “long-winded and difficult”, but it was “not unique to Featherston”.

He said Moving Bed Bioreactor [MBBR] trials to reduce ammonia, nitrates and other pollutants using microbes would run for a couple of months and provide real data that could be scaled.

SWDC chief executive Harry Wilson said the regional council had made it clear it would not grant a further extension.

“As the regulatory authority, they are telling us that we have to do a parallel process, we have to do best endeavours to find a long-term solution, but we must improve the discharge into Donald’s Creek now.”

Wilson said it was a “delicate dance” with the regional council but said the consenting body was co-operative.

WW said the cost of trials would be in the tens of thousands, but it was impossible to estimate the cost of the consents accurately.

Wilson said it was likely to be in the millions.

“Resource consents are expensive, but we’re hoping we can do it cheaper because we have a lot of information already.”

WW proposed to lodge a short-term consent with the regional council in January 2023, a month before the consent extension expires.

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