Taupō's worst wastewater disaster in recent history

By Kereama Wright

The gravity of Taupō's wastewater disaster has finally come to light, leaving the lake owners, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, sad and scrambling for answers. 

The Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board are extremely dissatisfied, says its CEO, Topia Rameka. 

A water main on Lake Terrace burst at around 2pm Tuesday afternoon, creating a washout which collapsed part of a footpath and took out the sewerage line beneath.

Taupō District Council chief executive Gareth Green told Te Ao, "A wastewater pipe that carries about 70% of Taupō wastewater openly flowed into the lake for just under two hours yesterday afternoon. At two o'clock this morning, the team were able to stop all wastewater into the lake and now we're into the recovery stage from there."

"It's the worst wastewater spill that Taupō would have seen in recent memory, it's up there, it's pretty bad," says Green.

Taupō Mayor of six years, David Trewavas, who has lived in Taupō since 1983, has labelled it a disaster, "Certainly, I've never seen anything quite like this before."

Wastewater leakages into the lake were blocked around two o'clock Wednesday morning, almost 12 hours after a freshwater pipe burst causing an area of the bank to wash away. 

At least four water pumps have been brought in to pump wastewater from one side of the slip to the other. Green says it's too early to determine the cause of the burst. 

When asked who is was at fault, Mayor Trewavas said, "There's all reasons coming into play here, we have had a swarm of earthquakes."

"This pipe was only about 20 years into a 100-year life, so relatively new. The pipe hasn't failed on its own, so there will have been something that's caused that. We're thinking ground movement of some description," he says. 

"There's no more sewage going into the lake, however, the solution that we've got in place is only a temporary fix so we are having to ask residents to conserve water and to reduce their flushing."

Ngāti Tūwharetoa are working closely with the council and authorities, but plans to place a rāhui on this section of the lake are ongoing.  

Rameka says the priority is to clean the spill and repair the pipes, "We will consult our elders with regards to any cultural decisions."

Tūwharetoa chief, Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, visited the site Wednesday afternoon. 

Trewavas spoke to Sir Tumu about keeping communication lines open, "I just had a conversation with the paramount chief, Sir Tumu, just then and he said he wants to fully collaborate with us and any help that we can help each other, let's do this together."

Local businesses are still operating, but the local Māori immersion school Whakarewa i Te Reo Ki Tūwharetoa has closed its doors for the week. Principal, Colleen Morehu says it is "in respect for their ancestral lake and the council's cautions."

"The council has urged us to limit our water usage and avoid flushing our toilets. We are a school, our usage is higher than normal so we decided to close. This is a very sad situation," she says. 

The smell of the waste is still evident, but the council says it will take at least a week to repair the pipes, they'll then launch an investigation into the disaster. 

The council has also contacted iwi authorities along the Waikato River, as Meridian Energy opened the flood gates to allow the wastewater to flow down the Waikato river.