Council targets illegal users in water loss mystery

Posted 24 August 2022 by Moana Ellis

A district council is installing dozens of isolation valves across a water network to help solve the mystery of massive water losses.

Ruapehu District Council says 40 isolation valves will help pinpoint leaks or high usage points including possible illegal commercial water take from the Ohakune reticulated network.

Garden tap leaking, dripping, water.

Residents are being offered free plumbing to the value of $200 per job to fix household leaks and drips. Photo: 123RF

The council is also considering using thermal imaging to find underground leakages on private properties as the holiday town battles to stem the unexplained loss of 720,000 litres (720m3 cubic metres) of water every day from the network.

In June last year, the council said the volume of missing water was equivalent to filling the township’s swimming pool two and a half times every day.

Reducing the unexplained water loss was critical to managing future demand – including servicing growth in new housing developments – and to avoid precautionary boil water notices.

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Boil water notices are issued when the council is unable to supply water that meets drinking water standards. It is a particular problem during periods of heavy rain and busy school holidays when poor raw water quality reduces drinking water output and there is not enough treated water stored to manage heavy demand.

Manager infrastructure services Stuart Watson said reducing overall water demand and stemming loss through leaks by 20,000 litres per hour to 10,000 litres per hour would give Ohakune the best chance of avoiding a boil water notice during those times.

It would also help keep within water take resource consent limits and allow the Ohakune Water Treatment Plant to service much-needed new housing, he said.

Chief executive Clive Manley said water savings of between 5000 and 10,000 litres per hour had been achieved in the past year through an ongoing awareness drive. The campaign asked people to report leaks diligently because porous volcanic soils allowed water to flow away underground, making leaks hard to spot.

Residents were also being offered free plumbing to the value of $200 per job to fix household leaks and drips.

“We’ve had 48 people taking up the free plumbing so far, and we’re pleased with that response,” Manley said.

Council water contractor Veolia fixed all network leaks found as a result of the free plumbing offer and any other known failures within the water network had been addressed, he said.

“To achieve half of the required water saving is significant but we are still using more water than we theoretically should be.”

Water running from a tap

File pic Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Possible years-long informal water takes

Manley said the council was now investigating the possibility of informal takes or illegal commercial usage.

“We are methodically working through identifying those informal takes where people have tapped into the pipes and are taking water that we’re not aware of. Some practices may have been in place for years.

“We should know who takes water. We will then have discussions with those users and work with them to regularise water take. We’re not going to close down businesses – it’s more a case of understanding who is taking the water.”

Manley said the council was carefully working through a strategy to target illegal commercial usage at the extremities of the network.

“We had water staff walk around the rural/outer parts of the network looking for unusual connections. This identified a number of practices that would consume a significant volume of water.

“These users were spoken with, resulting in behaviour changes at the time. We are maintaining ongoing monitoring of these situations.”

Isolation valves would enable the control of water flow across smaller areas of the reticulated network to identify what was happening in those isolated sections.

“Veolia have identified the exact locations within the network for the installations to take place,” Manley said.

The work did not proceed immediately because water modelling was needed beforehand to provide for new housing development.

“This modelling has now been completed and calibrated based on the potential new housing developments. The cost of the work has been budgeted for this 2022/23 financial year where we plan to install approximately 40 new isolation valves.

“This will allow us to fine tune and better understand the demand. Based on the minute data acquired from the reservoirs, the demand ramps up and down throughout the night. This demonstrates usage.”

Manley said underground leakage through private properties was a potential problem which could be explored in the new financial year. New thermal imaging technology could be effective at targeting this sort of loss.

He said proposed Three Waters reform has had no impact on the council’s efforts to stop water disappearing.

“Three Waters reform is not relevant. We are required to manage our water well,” Manley said.

Ruapehu District Council offices in Ohakune

Ruapehu District Council offices in Ohakune. Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

The council’s Long Term Plan included maintaining an accelerated work programme to upgrade its drinking water plants within five years. One of these projects was a new water treatment plant for Ohakune.

“Making drinking water is expensive and fixing large water losses directly affects the capacity of plant we need to build and how much water we need to make.”

Manley said there were no plans to introduce water meters for domestic users.

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers’ Association and NZ On Air.