Future of ‘three waters’ still unclear

A water industry group has questioned why the public is no clearer on how to better manage the resource, six months after the Government took power.

The quality of drinking water became huge news last year after a report into the Havelock North gastro outbreak revealed people across the country were likely to be drinking unsafe water.

The report pointed the finger at the Ministry of Health and councils for failing to both monitor and supply clean drinking water.

The challenge is not just how to fix ageing water pipes and drainage infrastructure, but also to decide who should pay for it.

The Havelock North report estimated fixing the pipes alone would cost $2.2 billion, while a Government review of the nation’s water infrastructure last year estimated councils would have to invest $13.8b over the next decade to repair and replace drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure to meet acceptable standards.

Management of those ‘three waters’ is part of a review managed by the Department of Internal Affairs that was confirmed last week but has been bubbling away since last year.

“The bottom line is it’s bigger than a breadbox and it’s expensive. Infrastructure is fiendishly expensive."

The department has been gathering information, and Internal Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta wrote to interested parties late April confirming a “broad-ranging review”.

This is separate to the Government’s final response to the Havelock North inquiry, managed by Health Minister David Clark and yet to be released.

It is understood the Government is unlikely to announce a decision on the latter before this month’s Budget.

But John Pfahlert, chief executive of Water New Zealand, said the two were intrinsically linked and he was surprised a clearer direction had not been announced by the Government.

He said he understood it was a complex issue that would result in some big decisions, but the sector still had no idea which direction things were heading in.

“I’d expected that there might have been some more really hard, concrete decisions by now … I would have thought five months was sufficient time for the Government to at least have preliminary views about whether they wanted to establish a drinking water regulator and whether they wanted to mandate chlorination of public water supplies and things like that.”

Christchurch is currently grappling with the chlorination issue having temporarily added it to the water supply as a safety measure, but many believe it to be only be a short-term measure.

A report from engineering consultancy Beca to assess the cost of two recommendations from the Havelock North inquiry was released last week and estimated Canterbury alone would have to stump up almost $200m to upgrade its water treatment plants.

Malcolm Alexander, chief executive of Local Government New Zealand, agreed the cost of upgrading the infrastructure would be astronomical.

But he was supportive of the Government’s slow and steady approach to such a complicated issue.

“The bottom line is it’s bigger than a breadbox and it’s expensive. Infrastructure is fiendishly expensive.

“The worst thing to do is make hip-pocket decisions, particularly when it’s driven by engineers who tend to have a particularly siloed view of the world, like build more sh*t and life will be easy.”

Under current law, the Government does not own or fund any water infrastructure with utilities having to be owned by local councils.

This is unlikely to change, particularly with central government’s books so tight, with private ownership appearing out of the question.

“The review will include looking at what structures and entities are best suited for three waters provision," Mahuta wrote in her letter.

“I am also mindful that the core principle of public ownership of these services will underpin considerations that will result from this view.”

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said public ownership of water assets will play an integral part in a review of the 'three waters' infrastructure. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Alexander said there was no appetite within his organisation for private ownership of large schemes.

But the costs to replace ageing infrastructure had to be met from somewhere, with one option a broader roll-out of water metering across the country.

Charging users for the water they used would not only raise revenue but also lead to a drop in consumption that would also reduce capital costs, he said.

Mahuta did not answer questions about the pace of the Government's approach but said there was a strong local sentiment that water infrastructure remained in public ownership.

“We are taking practical action to tackle one of the biggest issues in the local government space that the previous Government had not taken any concrete steps on. The three waters infrastructure challenge requires a strategic approach rather than simply reacting to a leak when it happens.

“The review is intended to pull together all the relevant information and evidence to inform options for three waters service delivery, asset management, infrastructure funding and financing, regulation, governance and asset ownership issues. This work programme will inform options for the local and central government to consider as the solutions will require leadership and collaboration."

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