There are renewed calls for independent commissioners to oversee Wellington City Council as frustration grows over its handling of water issues.

It comes as the Wellington region continues to live under Level 2 water restrictions, which ban the use of garden sprinklers and irrigation systems.

Further limits could be on the horizon, with Wellington Water estimating up to 45% of treated drinking water is being lost through thousands of leaks across the region.

Master Plumbers chief executive Greg Wallace had written to Local Government Minister Simeon Brown to ask him to call in independent commissioners.

Wallace’s organisation represents the plumbing, gasfitting and drainlaying trades.

“I don’t think the [Wellington City] Council or Wellington Water are taking this seriously enough to realise the effect on the city,” he told Q+A.

“We can’t operate a city without water.”

He said the city council had prioritised spending in the wrong areas — such as in cycleways — which he worried would need to be ripped up when it came time to replace the ageing pipe network.

Wallace had also offered the city council an army of private contractors to help patch leaks but said he’d been rejected.

Daran Ponter, chair of the Wellington Regional Council, also saw a need for Wellington City Council’s affairs to be externally monitored.

The regional council provides drinking water to councils in the Wellington region.

Ponter said the city council was guilty of “dithering” on the issue of water and that it “could have come to understand what was in front of them and the need for action”.

“I do think they could benefit from an observer who could better guide them.”

The regional council has a plan to build more water storage lakes. But Ponter said that wouldn’t happen until councils got on top of their leaks and introduced water meters.

Wellington mayor Tory Whanau said Ponter was wrong about the city needing an observer. She said the Local Government Minister hadn’t raised the idea of an observer or commissioner either.

In fact, she said, the city had staved off further water restrictions.

In December, Wellington Water’s modelling showed a 33% chance of Level 4 water restrictions. This would ban all outdoor water use and require people to reduce their indoor water use by up to 50%.

Whanau said her meeting with the minister went well.

Brown had sent her a formal letter in January to request more information about Wellington’s water issues.

She said the council had allocated $2.5 million to address leaks over the summer, but acknowledged these maintenance jobs were more of a short-term patch-up.

“It would be better to completely replace the pipes, which is happening in places like Taranaki Street. But that’s going to take years to complete.”

Wellington City Council was coming up with a long-term plan to tackle and finance the fixing of its water network problems, she said. The council — one of six that funds Wellington Water — will vote next week on which capital projects they will pause.

“We’ve really put it [water infrastructure funding] at the top of the priority list … that investment in cycleways was always going to happen and it will continue to happen,” Whanau said.

“But we were hoping that we would have wider reforms to be able to put water infrastructure off [the council’s] balance sheet,” she added, as the coalition government forges ahead with legislation to scrap the bulk of Labour’s Three Waters reforms.

Wellington Water chief executive Tonia Haskell said she understood people’s frustration at being told to conserve water while streets remained drenched due to leaks.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for more funding.”

Q+A with Jack Tame is made with the support of New Zealand on Air

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