Infrastructure

Inside NZ’s water management mess

A major report by the Auditor-General on how councils manage drinking, storm and waste waters found an incoherent, disorganised and stagnant system unprepared for climate change

Auditor-General John Ryan found so much lacking in our water management systems he chose to start his final report on it by listing the things he didn’t find:

“Given the significance of water issues, we expected to find: clear national strategies...coherent work programmes...robust systems...resourcing, planning, and strategic risk management...and strong engagement models with communities of interest and, in particular, Māori.” Ryan wrote.

“We found that, although much good work is being done, all of these elements were not in place.”

Ryan said New Zealand didn’t have enough data about its water assets and had different organisations in charge of water with competing interests. Councils were ill-prepared for climate change with few having taken note of it in their long-term plans. 

He also noted the Government had never responded to a major proposal from the Waitangi Tribunal over the need to co-govern its water supplies with Māori. That issue was raised by iwi at hearings on the Resource Management Amendment Bill too, as reported by Newsroom Pro in January.

The report comes at the tail-end of seven water performance reports issued over two years by the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) and draws on many of those audits for its conclusions.

Reaching a water consensus

Governance and responsibility for water is spread across multiple organisations within the public sector.

"The Ministry cannot yet demonstrate the overall effectiveness of its freshwater clean-up funds."

That means there is no clear co-ordination or strategy behind our water management and it is difficult to assess whether the right investments are being made. 

“In our work on water, we saw that many public organisations' water management priorities and work programmes conflicted with or duplicated those of other public organisations,” the OAG report said.

The lack of a national strategy for freshwater clean-up, for example, made it "difficult" to see whether clean-up money distributed through the Ministry for the Environment was spent on the right projects.

"The Ministry cannot yet demonstrate the overall effectiveness of its freshwater clean-up funds," the report said. 

Changes to policies and standards governing the management of water also created uncertainty for organisations managing it, and made it difficult for them to plan and make investment decisions.

The changes also incurred “significant costs” for those organisations, the report said.

"Many councils assumed in their 2018-28 LTPs [long term plans] that, in the next 10 years, the effects of climate change will not significantly affect their communities and that there will be no major natural hazard events."

Reaching consensus and putting forward a long-term plan could help councils and other bodies better invest in tools to increase the supply of water and manage the demand for it. 

A mix of both supply and demand management tools was often best for water management, the report noted.

On the demand side, it made particular note of the significant decline in water usage on the Kāpiti Coast after water meters were put in place. Stuff reported that water meters had delayed the need for a major $36m infrastructure upgrade and cut peak-time usage by a quarter. 

The 'doing' needs work too

Even where planning and consensus-building was extensive the implementation of these plans often left a lot to be desired. 

Ryan pointed to a major marine spatial plan for the Hauraki Gulf that stalled in the implementation phase. 

An extensive consultation process meant a consensus was formed around it, but accompanying that consensus were 180 interrelated recommended actions. 

Consultation had been done with stakeholders, but the agencies implementing the process had not been involved, the OAG report said. 

"There needed to be a balance between giving the stakeholder-led collaborative group enough independence and the right amount of involvement from the agencies, which might be responsible for large parts of the implementation."

Councils have a 'limited' understanding of the state of their own assets, the report says. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Councils have 'limited understanding' of risks

Ryan also hit out at how unprepared councils were for water issues related to climate change. Many had planned for floods according to past flooding events and hadn't tried to predict how future floods could be different. 

"Many councils assumed in their 2018-28 LTPs [long term plans] that, in the next 10 years, the effects of climate change will not significantly affect their communities and that there will be no major natural hazard events."

Data held by councils on the state of their own assets was also "limited", the report noted. 

A spokesman for Local Government New Zealand acknowledged that councils were operating with “20th century policy tools which don’t adequately recognise the 21st century risks we’re facing.”

“Councils have found themselves in a policy vacuum on the issue of climate change adaptation, and have been calling for central government guidance,” the spokesman said.

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