Pipe dreams

The fetid origin story of Wellington’s struggling sewerage system.

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Alexander Turnbull Library

At the northern edge of Wellington runs a trench that now carries State Highway One. Early in the 19th century, a once-pristine stream at its bottom began to putrefy with a mix of faeces, urine, leftover food and dead plants. In 1911, Katherine Mansfield, who had previously lived nearby, wrote of “the strong stench of fennel and decaying refuse that streamed from the gully”. Local newspapers denounced the foul-smelling “sewer gas” that rose from its depths.

At the time, no sewerage system existed in the city. Instead, residents regularly cast waste from their overflowing long drops, nightly chamber pots and rubbish bins into the trench, where it flowed down an open stream and through “rotten wooden boxes” into the city and the harbour below.

It wasn’t just Tinakori Road. Rivers of waste flowed throughout the central city. In 1865, just a few weeks before Parliament opened its doors for the first time, sewage washed across its grounds. Over the next three decades, blocked drains often forced “sewer vapours” back into people’s homes. To try to solve the problem, according to one historian, the Hector family in Thorndon fixed a “piece of flannel over the mouth of the kitchen tap, removing it every evening when it contained a teaspoon of filth that gave off a terrible stench as it decomposed”.

Action, however, was scarce. In a familiar story, the colony’s provincial governments had given town councils responsibility for dealing with sewage, but, according to Te Ara, “did not provide adequate funding for clean water supplies and other sanitary facilities”. For decades, councillors resisted proposed solutions. John Plimmer, one of the city’s “founding fathers”, insisted sewage could simply be dumped in the harbour “without any detriment to the bay”, while building a proper sewerage system “would result in substantial rates increases”.

But the situation soon spiralled out of control. James Hector, the first government scientist, noted the “misery and suffering” the muck caused, especially for “children from the prevalence of intestinal worms”. Sewage started to leach into the city’s freshwater. An 1870 study found that none of its wells, water tanks or streams were safe to drink from.

In 1890, according to Wellington City Council, diseases like cholera, diphtheria, typhoid and scarlet fever caused by “sewage-soaked backyards” killed 77 people.

At the time, fewer than 50,000 people lived in the city. (The efforts of the Hector household to fend off the waste with a piece of flannel failed: the father and son caught typhoid, and two neighbours died.)

That year, a council commission proposed a city-wide sewerage system. Even after the deaths wrought by decades of neglect, councillors deliberated for three years. Finally, in 1893, the proposal was approved. By 1899, the city had a new system which could gather up its sewage and discharge it on the south coast at Moa Point. A treatment centre was added nearly a century later. Today, Wellingtonians still live with that system. With some tweaks and extensions (such as the 1978 repair on Eastern Bays Marine Drive pictured), pipes and tunnels that are more than a century old carry the bulk of the city’s 67 million litres of daily waste.

Now, after decades of underinvestment from councils determined to keep rates low, that system is collapsing once more. Wellington Water reports that the city’s main pipe is under “attack” from acidic sewage gas, which could lead to a “catastrophic” failure, with waste spilling across the airport and throughout Kilbirnie. In a briefing last year, the company issued reluctant councillors a stark warning. “The number of service failures, sewage overflows, leaks and flooding events will increase.”

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