Water announcements long overdue

Water announcements long overdue

News that we are to have a national water regulator is long overdue.

It’s been three years since the campylobacter outbreak caused the outbreak of gastroenteritis in Havelock North, which was the catalyst for action. More than 5,000 people were estimated to have fallen ill as a result, with four deaths and many with ongoing conditions associated with the outbreak. The Government estimates that 34,000 people across the country become ill from their drinking water every year. Many thousands must boil their water to drink it safely.

There’s been very little action since then - despite Masterton enduring further events similar to Havelock North, fortunately without such widespread and serious consequences.

It’s a national shame that the quality of our drinking water in some regions is substandard - and in the case of Havelock North, the source of serious illness and even death.

New regulations need care
According to the Minister of Health David Clark, the new regulations will help clean up New Zealand's wastewater and stormwater systems to make all water safe for drinking. Public safety, he said, was a non-negotiable priority.

Having an independent regulator with the final say on safe drinking water is a great solution, as long as the Water Services Act due late this year gives it teeth.

However, serious thought and consideration must be given to ensure the right delivery model is provided, backed by the right skillsets and sufficient funding. This applies particularly to the smaller local bodies where the prospect of funding upgrades to their water infrastructure just through rates or borrowing, is simply daunting.

While many councils do a wonderful job on a shoestring, rates alone will not be sufficient to pay for new water systems.

It’s widely recognised that local councils have been under-supported in their responsibilities for water quality in their regions. Especially the smaller regions, where some have been fighting an uphill battle for years just to comply with the regulations.

Reportedly it would take half a billion dollars to get things up to standard across the country. Where’s that money coming from? Who’s paying? How can smaller councils and private scheme owners find that sort of money?

We need the Government to subsidise the smaller regions and the sooner that’s made clear, the better it will be for everyone, so that previously unaffordable upgrades can start.

New Zealanders need to come together and champion the right for clean safe drinking water in all parts of the country. So, will the new regulator have teeth and will funding issues and delivery be addressed in the proposed Water Services Act? From government announcements and consultations over the past few years it would seem the government is finally ready to do so.

The delivery model for our new Three Waters regulatory regime is vitally important and requires very careful consideration.
There are underlying issues around resourcing, skills, capabilities and funding.

Questions to address include; can councils attract and retain the right skilled people to develop and implement improvements to our systems? Are there enough skilled people in NZ to deliver this work?

Are we in danger of insisting on quality levels that are unachievable for smaller councils?

Should the smaller councils, such as on the West Coast, be ‘bundled up’ and use some shared services, with a CCO to attract and deliver skilled staff?
Is the Scottish Water model (a regulator that covers the whole country) the right approach for New Zealand?

And will funding be included as part of the regulatory body’s mechanism, making it both a quality and economic regulator?

Overall the Government’s announcement is very positive.

While the final form of the regulator won’t be known for several months and the Water Services Act is about a year away, the proposed changes can deliver clean and safe drinking water for all New Zealanders, backed by more cohesive regulation of wastewater and stormwater services.

Steve Jones is the General Manager Infrastructure here at HG. Steve has expertise across the entire water cycle, including Infrastructure, Water & Wastewater, and Water Resources.

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