Residents told don’t flush your toilets, as sewage leaks into New Zealand’s largest lake

In the New Zealand town of Taupo, residents aren’t flushing their toilets.

They’re following orders from the district council, which is working to fix a leak that has led to more than 800,000 litres of wastewater draining into Lake Taupo, the largest lake in the country.

On Tuesday, a suspected earthquake damaged in the town’s water system, and wastewater – including greywater and sewage – flowed from a broken pipe into the lake.

Images from the Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board, an indigenous Maori body that owns the lake, show a blast of brown sludge inching into the lake’s pristine teal water.

800,000 litres of wastewater flowed into the freshwater Lake Taupo – the largest lake in New Zealand

After bringing in pumps and sandbags, the district council said wastewater is no longer flowing into the lake and the pipe has been temporarily fixed.

“The drinking water is 100 per cent safe and is continually monitored,” said Gareth Green, CEO of the Taupo District Council. “There’s no need to worry health-wise as long as people don’t come into contact with the contaminated area in that specific place.”

Taupo is home to about 24,190 residents, and lies near the centre of New Zealand’s North Island. These residents, schools, and shops have now been told to save as much water as possible to ease pressure on the pipe’s temporary repair.

“If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” reads a post on the council’s Facebook page. “Please minimize toilet flushing and water use this morning!”

All wastewater from showers, laundry, toilets, and washing dishes enter the same system, meaning residents have been told to skip or minimize those activities.

Residents expressed their concerns on social media, asking about the safety of drinking water, the duration of the flush ban, and demanding accountability. The spill is of particular concern to the Ngati Tuwharetoa, the area’s indigenous Maori tribe.

“Lake Taupo is a treasure of paramount importance to our people,” said Topia Rameka, CEO of the Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board.

“It has sustained our people for 30 generations. Any environmental impact that has the potential to degrade or impact the life-giving force of the water is something that is of major concern to us – on an environmental level, a social level, and a cultural level,” Rameka said.

According to the district council, the visible effects of the spill will be gone in a few days, and a new pipe is expected to be installed in three to five days.

The pipe broke near the mouth of a river, so liquid waste is being flushed downstream, away from the lake, said Green.

However, this adds another element of worry for residents who source their water from the river.

“The immediate concerns for our communities are those living downstream of the river – their ability to take water from the river, drinking water,” said Rameka. He added that if that happens, it’ll likely be a short-term issue until the river carries the contaminants away.

Clean-up efforts and road repairs could still take weeks, but council officials say there won’t be long-term damage to the lake water.

Pumps and sandbags are used to stem the flow of wastewater into Lake Taupo

Still, some worry that the spill could hurt the lake’s large trout population.

“People are concerned about the catching of food,” said Rameka, who added that the tribe will consider fishing prohibition measures, to allow the trout to decontaminate and recover.

Ongoing investigations into the cause of the break have so far pointed to ground movement from recent earthquakes, rather than aging infrastructure, said the council in a statement on Wednesday.