Explainer: What's Going on with Sewage and Wastewater in our Harbour

Dealing with human waste in Raglan has been a contentious issue ever since the Raglan County Council built the original sewage treatment plant – and probably before that as well. Given the current spike in debate on this issue with lots of confusing information we thought we’d try to do a bit of a fact check.  

To clarify a potential bit of confusion in advance; it’s Waikato District Council that is in charge of our wastewater system and it’s Waikato Regional Council that monitors the quality of the output.

I’ve heard that there is currently raw sewage going into the harbour?

No. The word sewage has been incorrectly used in social media and in the Waikato Times. The outflow into the harbour inlet is “treated wastewater” that meets (or is close to) standards set by the Regional Council. It is not even “treated sewage” which has a different implication to “treated wastewater”.  The Waikato Times was forced to issue a correction for an article earlier this month where they used these terms incorrectly.

So it’s all hunky dory

Well no, the Waikato District Council admits their plant has failed to meet the consent limits in total suspended solids and E Coli count and say this is “due to the plant being under pressure from flow and design capability”. 

So the claim on Facebook that they are violating the discharge fecal matter limits of the consent is true?

No. That’s another case of the wrong words being used. What we do have though is fecal coliform exceeding the limits. Fecal coliform are bacteria from warm blooded animals that are present in fecal matter and can remain in the wastewater after the fecal matter is removed. They are an indicator that other illness-causing bacteria may be present and presumably not enough are being killed off by the UV treatment because of an excess of suspended solids. E.Coli is a type of fecal coliform.  

OK, so there’s no actual shit coming out the pipe but isn’t there still a problem?

Yes.  We asked the Regional Council about this and they said that the wastewater is “marginally” exceeding limits: 

The wastewater treatment plant is operating within compliance limits for all contaminants of concern, except for faecal coliforms and total suspended solids. Faecal coliforms only marginally exceeded one of two limits during recent times. The recurring suspended solids issue is mostly as a result of algae growth in the wastewater ponds, rather than ineffective treatment of raw wastewater. While there are exceedances in some water quality parameters, Waikato Regional Council considers that current management of the discharge while the plant upgrade is completed is sufficient to manage the risk. However, we maintain a close watch on the site and may take further action if the assessment of risk changes or the treatment quality degrades”.

See the bottom of this article for the Regional Council’s super-detailed answer to this question.

Didn’t we have raw sewage entering the harbour a little while ago?

The last time we had a problem with raw sewage regularly entering the harbour was in 2016 when heavy rainfall would cause overflow’s from access lids (aka man-holes) forcing the closure of the harbour. This was associated with a number of resignations of council staff, including a senior manager, before a plan was put in place to fix the problem. The community had input on how much ratepayer money was spent on the solution – and the solution was largely successful. We no longer have regular spillage events but no one is claiming that this is a 100% full proof system.

Is the council trying to hide the dangers of swimming by the wastewater outlet from us (as has been claimed online)?

No. For many years Council has had signs by the outlet warning people not to swim or collect shellfish from that area.

But we heard there were problems last year.

Yes. Last October treated wastewater was accidentally pumped into the inlet during the incoming tide. It’s only allowed to go into the sea on the outgoing tide, or if there is heavy rainfall that has swamped the wastewater system. These problems happened during fine weather and surprisingly they happened 5 times. 3 times after a fault on 10th October and 2 times after another fault on 26th October. 

Council and Watercare have apologised to the community for the 5 accidental releases, investigated the cause and say they have rectified the problems. They also held a public meeting in Raglan to explain what had happened and answer questions from the public. This was attended by councillors, community board members, council staff, the council CEO, the head of Watercare, and members of the Waters Governance Board, which we think is a fairly good sign of how seriously they were taking the issue.

The Regional Council investigated the 5 breaches and issued Watercare with a formal warning. They did not issue a fine like they did in 2016.

Wasn’t there another problem near that time as well?

Yes. Those 5 accidental releases were followed by another incident in December when partially treated wastewater (it didn’t go through the final UV treatment stage) was released (at the correct time).  Waikato District Council and Watercare did an internal investigation and say they have made some changes to limit the chance of this happening again.

But wasn’t there yet another problem around then!?!?

Yes. There were also alarmingly high E.Coli test results in October last year around the time of the accidental wastewater discharges. It was associated with heavy rainfall and another test done immediately afterwards showed it was back down to acceptable levels very quickly. Given that it didn’t appear to be related to wastewater releases, the Council did a survey of their underground pipes in the area. They have found no problems from the existing network but there is still a lot of concern about this test result and our local politicians have insisted council investigate the possibility that disused pipes are part of the problem.  

Is Wastercare up to the task of running our 3-waters?

It was generally thought that they’re doing a good job with our 3 waters - certainly better than when the service was run in-house by the council. Even John Lawson, who has consistently been a harsh critic of council services has been complimentary of their work but there has definitely been a loss of confidence after this series of problems.

UPDATE: While this article was being written Council announced that Watercare would be ending their relationship with the council in 2 years time because of the changes the new government is making to 3-waters legislation. 

So are we always going to have problems?

This is just our opinion but it does look like there will always be issues caused by human error. Predicted increases in extreme weather events caused by climate change are likely to put more pressure on the system as well. Of course if we had an unlimited budget we could probably solve all of our problems but the reality is we have significant financial constraints, especially now that the new government has given the 3-waters problem back to councils to solve.

A local resident on facebook has said council is refusing to prove the current situation is safe, because they know that the risk of getting a staph infection at this location is very high.

This statement is impossible to prove either way and is pointless - and fact-less - speculation by someone with no expertise in the matter.  More useful to this debate;  the Regional Council conducts regular tests of our water near Papahua and out on the points. This information is publically available on the LAWA website and does in fact show there are times when it is not safe to swim. These are usually associated with periods of high rainfall when toxic material is washed into the sea from both rural and urban areas.  In addition the Regional Council says they are not aware of any problems with Staph and the District Council doesn’t appear to think the accusations are credible.

A local resident was quoted in the Waikato times as saying; “Waikato District Council and Watercare have refused to disclose in real time, when the pipe is actively pumping effluent into our coastal waters.” 

The conditions of the consent are public information and state that they can start discharging treated wastewater half an hour before high tide during the “slack tide” period. This happens twice a day but they do not issue an alert every single time they pump.

Why won’t they install a red warning light as has been suggested.

Council say they believe this will cause confusion for visitors and for boaties coming into the harbour at night. It is worth considering that red warning lights are usually reserved for more serious events where people are in imminent danger such as fire emergencies. While the wastewater outlet is not where you want to swim, it’s also not that kind of emergency. 

We should also remind everyone that this location is not the safest place to swim except during the slack tide anyway so maybe check your tide charts to find out when it’s low tide as that’s the only time you’ll be clear of all these problems.

But haven’t there been more problems with accidental releases since the 5 last year?

No, but there has been a lot of fuss on facebook with people posting images of what they think is some kind of effluent problem. Council has checked with their system and none of them were associated with an accidental release. We think people have been mistaking various types of floating scum for wastewater.

One particular video on facebook in February did show a treated wastewater release in action during the “slack tide” and while it looked like it was starting to drift into the harbour it was very different to the photos taken during the actual accidental releases that occurred last year.

If the treated wastewater is bad for inside the harbour aren’t we just shifting the problems outside the harbour.

Here’s the Regional Council again:

The receiving environment outside the harbour is higher energy and more dynamic than the inner harbour areas. As a result, the dilution of wastewater is more effective and is unlikely to result in adverse effects to the environment or human health.

Isn’t it true that the community would prefer a land based treatment system?

Yes and the council has been working on plans for this for a while now. They have investigated the options, shown them to the community and settled on a preferred option for putting treated wastewater into the ground. They have signed an MoU with a landowner on Maungatawhiri Road to use their property but we understand they are looking again at using Wainui Reserve as an option because the cost of pumping the wastewater up the hill to Maungatawhiri Rd is very high.

Didn’t it say in the Waikato Times that it would be 10-15 years before the problems could be fixed?

Not only did they say that but their headline said there was no short term fix. We don’t know of any evidence for this comment but what we do know is that the council has just awarded a contract to a company called Apex to build a new plant which will treat the wastewater to such a high standard that apparently you can wash your hands in the outflow. Our councillor has observed staff doing just this in Meremere last year where the first of these new systems was built. Our one will be completed in 2025, at which point the community might want to consider whether it’s still worth spending millions of dollars on a land based disposal system. 

We’ve heard the district council is operating on an expired consent?

This is true. The Regional Council issued the District Council with an extension to the old resource consent to give them more time to get a new system in place.

So how much of a big a deal is this really?

Local water scientists have said that human wastewater is just one of many issues affecting our harbour.  

Despite the excellent riparian planting done by Harbourcare and local farmers there is still a lot of farm effluent and sedimentation entering the harbour. Urban runoff is also a significant problem with a lot of toxins coming from our roads and then there are the rogue E. Coli tests near the museum last year for which we still can’t find a cause.

If we’re concerned about water quality then all these other issues need to be taken into account as well.


This is the Regional Council’s detailed description of the Raglan Wastewater treatment plant’s performance over the last couple of years:

Waikato District Council has compliance limits for faecal coliforms that are calculated over a 12 month period from 1 July to 30 June. There are two limits that apply – a 90th percentile limit and a median limit.

The faecal coliform 90th percentile result for the period 1 July 2022 to 30 June 2023 was 45cfu/100ml, marginally exceeding their consent limit of 43 cfu/100ml. The median result for the same period was 13 cfu/100ml which was compliant.

For the period 1 July 2023 to 31 January 2024, there has been 1 result over the 90th percentile limit (44 cfu/100ml) and two that marginally exceeded the median limit (18 cfu/100ml and 21cfu/100ml). As the discharge limits are assessed based on a full year of data, we cannot make a full assessment at this time.