Government

Burnham water problems hint at issues with military estate

Soldiers at the Burnham military camp have been restricted to two-minute showers and barred from using flush urinals, following an E.coli scare due to wastewater leaching into private bores around the base.

Defence Minister Ron Mark says the problems at the Canterbury base are a demonstration of the wider infrastructure problems dogging the NZ Defence Force’s property and facilities around the country - some of which date back to World War I.

In an October 3 email sent around the Burnham base and viewed by Newsroom, camp commandant Major Grant Payton said wastewater being released onto the paddocks after treatment was potentially affecting the water quality for private bores downstream.

In order to minimise the amount of water going to the plant, those on base were being restricted to two-minute showers, while flush urinals were being turned off.

Payton said the measures were “a short-term solution to help mitigate the amount of water being pumped through the [treatment plant]”, with the NZDF defence estate and infrastructure team working with the Selwyn District Council on a longer-term solution.

The water issues did not affect the quality of the drinking water in the Burnham camp or housing area, he said.

Camp personnel had been asked to keep minimising their water use “while we investigate longer-term solutions to dispose of the camp’s wastewater”.

In a statement, an NZDF spokeswoman said the wastewater was being discharged onto paddocks “in accordance with a resource consent granted by Environment Canterbury (ECan)”.

After E.coli was reported in the wells used to monitor the groundwater, the NZDF stopped the discharge of wastewater at ECan’s request and asked Burnham staff and personnel to help by cutting down their water use.

Residents using bore water at three properties downstream of the Burnham camp had been asked by the Selwyn District Council to boil their drinking water, while they also had access to the council’s water supply.

The spokeswoman said ECan had since withdrawn its abatement notice, with Burnham resuming its normal discharge of wastewater on October 16. However, camp personnel had been asked to keep minimising their water use “while we investigate longer-term solutions to dispose of the camp’s wastewater”.

Before stepping down as Defence Force chief, Tim Keating warned military bases would soon become "unlivable" unless something was done to fix them. Photo: Getty Images.

Concerns about the condition of NZDF facilities around New Zealand have been raised by the most senior military officials in the country.

Speaking to Newsroom earlier this year, the NZDF chief Tim Keating warned that military barracks would soon become “unlivable” if work was not done, with some buildings still in use despite being constructed as temporary facilities for World War II.

Mark told Newsroom Burnham’s wastewater problems showed the Defence Force was facing similar problems as local councils when it came to infrastructure deficits.

“What most people don’t seem to realise is every base is a small town, every base commander is effectively a mayor…

“We’ve got exactly the same infrastructure issues inside the Defence Force as every local government has - the problem is we’ve got to government and get the money, we can’t tax people.”

Successive governments had underfunded the defence estate, despite some of the buildings being in the same condition as when he was a soldier in the 1970s.

“Some of our bases are over 100 years old, they’re still built on infrastructure that was built during the First World War and the Second World War, and it’s tired, it’s falling apart…

“If we cannot provide our personnel with accommodation of the standard that most people today expect, then we’re going to find it very hard to retain them.”

“All of my Cabinet colleagues are now hearing me say, excuse me, when you talk roading, when you talk water quality, water reticulation, water storage...all of that falls back onto Defence Force. We, just like local government, just like central government, have to ramp up our capability and that requires money.”

Mark acknowledged it was challenging to make the case for extra defence funding, given shortfalls in other areas, but said he was already making the case ahead of the process for next year’s Budget.

“All of my Cabinet colleagues are now hearing me say, excuse me, when you talk roading, when you talk water quality, water reticulation, water storage...all of that falls back onto Defence Force.

"We, just like local government, just like central government, have to ramp up our capability and that requires money.”

He said he would focus on plans for the defence estate once the Defence Capability Plan was completed and signed off by Cabinet, a process he hoped would be completed by December.

He had also asked officials to look at the $1.7 billion estimate for defence estate investment, calculated under the last government, to determine whether the figure would need to be increased or decreased.

National defence spokesman Mark Mitchell, a former defence minister, said governments needed to prioritise their spending given New Zealand had “landed on” a defence budget of about one percent of GDP.

“As a country we sort of prioritise our [defence] spending...and that’s got to be carefully managed between updating and getting new equipment, investment into personnel, and of course into property.”

The last government had started work on a “massive programme” to identify and prioritise new investment into the defence estate through its Defence White Paper, he said.

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