OPINION: Owning our sh*t – and learning to deal with it

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Alexa Forbes is a two-term Queenstown Lakes District councillor, who’s standing for the Otago Regional Council during this year’s local body elections

OPINION: Queenstown’s council’s resource consent application to allow for occasional sewage overflow spills into waterways has rightly raised awareness and outrage.

We have a problem in our current system in which these overflows are considered unavoidable.

Generally they’re caused by random events, but as an increasingly environmentally-aware public we now have zero tolerance for such spills.

Airlines manage zero tolerance for accidents, why can’t we?

Fundamentally, we have a clash between a desire for a circular system that turns our waste into something harmless and useful, and the reality of a linear system that takes waste, processes it, then moves it downstream.

People want to ‘flush and forget’, but they also want a harmless system – the two may be mutually exclusive.

The resource consent application that has brought this into sharp focus asks for permission for overflows.

The engineers who design and operate the wastewater system are bound to protect public health and the environment.

Recently ORC has prosecuted QLDC when overflows have happened, but only in the instances where council could have done better.

As far as I can tell, many incidents have been ignored by the ORC because there was probably nothing council could have done about it.

This is not OK.

This resource consent application is facing up to an ongoing, difficult issue by bringing it into the public arena so we can own and deal with it.

Overflows are accidental, they will not be prevented by capping growth, nor are they the story of an ageing or unfit system.

Overflows happen when pipes are blocked by foreign objects (i.e., anything that’s not pee, poo or toilet paper), when contractors strike a pipe, when tree roots break pipes or when a big storm overwhelms the system.

I’ve had heavy criticism about the lack of detail in the proposed draft conditions of this consent application.

Personally, I agree with some of that.

However, in this process, I’d hope to see the conditions greatly tightened and the 35-year timeframe squeezed to 15. That said, one of the conditions allows the ORC to review all the conditions annually.

Part of the solution is learning to use and respect our sewerage and stormwater systems.

I think as a council we can do much more to educate people – many have little idea about what they can put down a toilet, sink or stormwater drain.

Every toilet and drain in the district should have a sticker or notice saying what can go down it and, crucially, what can’t.

Never flush flushable wipes, for example – flushable means they will wash out of your bowl, but these, along with nappies, sanitary items and any number of foreign objects, will combine with fats to cause fatbergs that can cause overflow.

Every sink should warn against sticking fat down it.

We need stronger maintenance regimes that ensure we know when a pipe is at risk of tree roots breaking it.

Builders need to understand that every drain needs covering as they work.

Restaurant and cafe workers need to know, and care for, their grease traps.

We need to own our shit, and know how to deal with it.

How we finally create that circular, no-harm system isn’t clear right now, but we need to continually improve what we have until that path presents itself … and this is now up to the commissioners to decide.