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Water and local body woes

March 15, 2021

Projected large scale changes in the near future to the way potable water is supplied to homes throughout the country should not have come as a surprise to anyone.

Last week the Waipa District Council announced the possibility of spending millions of dollars on water system upgrades, then being forced to hand them over to a new Government entity to own and manage. All local authorities in the country are in the same position and they have known this was coming since the Government announced in 2019 that there would be an overhaul of the nation’s potable water supplies in the wake of the fatal campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North in 2016. The Auckland Super City has its own massive water problems related to security of supply as well as the safety issues all local bodies are faced with.

The Government’s new Three Waters Reform regulations have been designed to also help clean up New Zealand’s wastewater and stormwater systems as well as making all potable water safe for drinking, so that the Havelock North incident is never repeated.

The Government has given local authorities the opportunity to be part of the new regime initially on a voluntary basis with financial compensation for the loss of water reticulation and treatment assets. However the issue is of such importance that compulsion is a likely next step for local authorities choosing not to join voluntarily.

The Waipa District Council has budgeted $100 million in its draft long-term plan to build a new wastewater treatment plant at Cambridge in a project which must be completed by 2027. There is also $13m ear marked for wastewater plant upgrades, including about $8m for an upgrade of the Te Awamutu plant to be completed by the middle of this year.

Those facilities will need to be built regardless of who builds them and most other local authorities have embarked on similar large-scale projects to bring drinking water quality up to required standards, something many of them have not been able to achieve for decades. 

There is also the often-expressed view that the new regulations are a massive over-reaction to the contamination in the Havelock North water supply, which was a rare if avoidable event and that amalgamation of small local bodies is the prime motivation.

There is no doubt that, lurking behind these reforms is the possibility that, without the responsibility for the management of all three water services, many smaller local authorities will have little reason to exist, raising the spectre of enforced amalgamation. Some district councillors and mayors in several regions have already raised concerns about the loss of local identity and being swallowed up by their larger neighbours. 

Is that simply selfish parochialism without considering the potential benefits of amalgamation? Local body politicians seem about evenly divided on the question and there is much to be said for both points of view. We heard similar predictions of community disintegration when the major reformation of local government was launched in the 1980s. Hundreds of borough councils and county councils in low population areas were amalgamated into larger district and regional councils in a quest for efficiency. Some of those little towns are now wards of bigger local bodies and many are ghosts of their former selves but was that inevitable with or without amalgamation?

The public conversation is not helped by raising fears of the privatisation, or at least a more commercial component, to the provision of potable water supplies currently provided by local authorities and paid for out of rates, as some local body politicians have in recent weeks.

The provision of three waters services in large towns and cities is relatively straight forward compared to rural communities where a number of complicating factors have to be considered. In many rural communities there is no centralised sewage reticulation system as they rely on traditional septic tanks for each household and storm water is generally not an issue as there are no large catchment areas like city roads, footpaths and roofs. 

That leaves the fate of hundreds of rural water supply schemes, usually from wells, which are owned by small local communities but managed by district councils. Many of these schemes were initially established as rural stock water systems from which a small percentage is taken as potable water.  

For those who rely on a reticulated public potable water supply, it does not really matter which entity manages the system so long as the water is safe and reliable. In the final analysis ratepayers and taxpayers are all the same people and it is they who will ultimately pay for whatever system is established. The future of their district councils is a very different matter.

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