Infrastructure

Water meters: the ‘third rail’ of council politics

Wellington's 'summer of sewage' and a growing debate about the need for massive investment in water networks has ripped the cap off a taboo subject for ratepayers: water meters and volumetric charging, Dileepa Fonseka reports

Hamilton’s longest-serving councillor Dave Macpherson was first elected in 1998 and has been campaigning against water meters for at least a decade. This week he took to Facebook to decry water meters. Again.

No vote is scheduled to bring them in, but Waikato Regional Councillors unwisely decided to bring the matter up in front of Macpherson at a meeting between Hamilton City Council and the regional council.

"I've had city-based regional councillors -- they have four city seats on that -- contact me after and say 'we weren't the ones supporting that note. It was the rural ones, not us'," Macpherson said.

"They're aware of what an issue it is in Hamilton," he said.

Macpherson has fought two election campaigns to stop bringing in water meters in Hamilton. That included one, in 2016, where he campaigned with a 'no water meters' party affiliation beside his name on the ballot paper.

A watery patchwork

He credited the stance for thousands of extra votes that rocketed him from being the lowest polling councillor at the election before to the third-highest polling in 2016. He lost those votes at the most recent local government election when water meters wasn't an issue.

"I've been elected eight times now and that's the only time I've had 'No water meters' beside my name...I've never been the top-polling candidate but that time [there] was a significant jump," Macpherson said.

Hamilton, Wellington and Dunedin don't have meters, but Auckland, Christchurch and Tauranga do. Auckland's Watercare charges $1.52 per 1,000 litres for fresh water and $2.62 per 1,000 litres for waste water, while Tauranga charges $2.14 per thousand litres of fresh water. Christchurch has meters, but doesn't charge per 1,000 litres.

Statistics from Water NZ for 2018 also show Hamiltonians use 40 percent more water per capita than Aucklanders do: 224 litres per day vs 160 litres per day.

Hamilton has company

Water NZ data also showed that Wellingtonians used 229 litres per day or 43 percent more water than Aucklanders. Dunedin residents used over 30 percent more than Auckland with 212 litres.

Of the major centres, only Tauranga used a comparable amount of water to Auckland: 173L a day. Although Christchurch used more water per person than Auckland, but less than Wellington, Hamilton and Dunedin.

On the face of it there is one difference between large urban areas that use the most and least amount of water per head: residential water meters. 

They are attached to almost every residential property in Auckland, Tauranga and Christchurch, but barely exist in Wellington, Hamilton and Dunedin. 

That said, the charging models attached to those meters are quite different. Auckland is the only major centre with full volumetric charging. Tauranga makes its residents pay a very low fixed charge of $29 and then adds a volume charge on top that works out to $378 per 200 cubic metres. Christchurch has meters on its properties, but charges for water the same way a council without water meters does.

'International laggards'

The prospect of expensive infrastructure upgrades after Wellington’s summer of sewage, and the resurfacing of predictions that the Wellington region would run out of drinkable water by 2040have seen water meters being mentioned in hushed tones across the capital again. 

Only a minority of New Zealand is water metered: 14 out of 41 council and water CCO areas have water meters in over 80 percent of residential properties according to Water NZ. Although this means over 50 percent of the population is metered, largely owing to meters in Auckland, Christchurch and Tauranga.

Metered areas are: Whangarei, Western Bay of Plenty, Nelson, Far North District Council, Hauraki, Selwyn, Kapiti Coast, Tasman, Auckland, Tauranga, Christchurch, Whakatane, Waipa and Central Otago. 

Water NZ Principal Data scientist Lesley Smith said comparing water usage between non-metered and metered areas was difficult because many metered areas were rural and used more water per head of population, but it was more easy to compare usage in urban areas.

"Every year you see more councils coming on board," Smith said. 

"We're international laggards in this space. Fiji has water meters," she said.

"It's not common practice to let people take one of the world's most precious resources and let people use it as much as they feel like."

On the Kāpiti Coast and in Tauranga, the use of water meters caused a big drop-off in peak-time usage,

Smith said metering in Kāpiti had deferred the need for $36m worth of upgrades and water usage dropped by 25 percent, Stuff reported.

And she said fierce political opposition to meters in Kāpiti also faded away. 

"If you've got a growing population you're going to have to bring on more water supplies, whether that means sinking more bores or building another reservoir and treatment plant. That's where you get the savings from water metering," Smith said. 

Smith said council-reported data on water charges, collated by Water NZ, showed metering didn't necessarily mean the average water user paid more for water even if it wasn't explicitly delineated on their rates bill. 

Aucklanders pay less for 200m3 of water than Wellingtonians or people in Dunedin do (but more than Hamiltonians and Christchurch residents). Tauranga residents pay more than all of them. 

Macpherson said he didn't believe providing water was free, but it was a question of fairness for older people living or large sections who might face large bills, or large families who have no choice but to use large amounts of water. 

What about the 'McMansions' in the suburbs with a pool? Macpherson contended the rich weren't large users of water. Yes they had to use a dollop of water to fill up their pools, but their houses were also more likely to be full of water-efficient technologies.

"They conserve energy better than these little cheap houses in the Housing corp areas who've got practically no insulation and leaking spouting and stuff like that," Macpherson said.

He didn't deny Hamiltonians used more water per head than other centres, but said no year-long water reduction campaign had ever been tried in Hamilton either. 

The fact that water conservation campaigns had been successful during periods of drought proved there was more that could be done to promote water conservation before charging for water, he said. 

"It's not that Hamilton residents pay nothing for water, it's that we all share in the cost just like do with our roading system and our parks and our libraries," Macpherson said. 

"They're all essential services just as water is," he said.

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