OPINION: Massive changes are in the pipeline for water

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There are a few things that are vital to human survival, and access to safe and reliable water is certainly one.

Currently government is proposing massive reforms to the regulation of drinking water throughout the entire country.

In short, government wants to regulate, own and manage the delivery of water, wastewater and possibly stormwater across the country.

This follows the Havelock North campylobacter outbreak in 2016 that resulted in widespread illness and four deaths.

I have no doubt you’re all also aware of the recent issues on this elsewhere in Otago.

Rightly so, there is an expectation shared by every New Zealander the water we drink will be safe.

The proposal by government, in the simplest of terms, considers that a type of crown entity/organisation (or a number of organisations) will be able to ensure better-quality water.

Government therefore proposes to take over all council-owned water supplies throughout NZ.

I think most councils are tentatively supportive of the proposal and are working closely with the government, but there are a number of questions to be answered.

Iwi have also raised concerns and interest in the future control of water as an unresolved issue under the treaty.

Most people in Aotearoa NZ are on a water supply owned by a district or city council, on behalf of their ratepayers.

Therefore, if council is to give up ownership of the water supply, there needs to be fair and reasonable compensation for it.

All of the councils across the country have massive investments in water supplies, including the plants themselves and, of course, the reticulation systems.

The government’s review has shown a massive and looming funding deficit in both water supply and wastewater networks across the country, and part of the proposed model is to fund this through more commercial arrangements and across larger groups of users.

No matter what arrangements are put in place, consumers will face higher costs for water and wastewater in the future.

Then there’s the issue of government’s ability to supply better-quality water than we currently have available.

Local authorities would be abandoning their responsibilities if they handed over ownership without ensuring the right model was in place to ensure quality supplies in the future.

And that, of course, leads to the next question, which is owner ship of supplies.

It is one thing to take them over but will they remain in government ownership?

If not, what safeguards will remain to ensure the quality of the supply?

The government has not signalled plans to privatise water, rather its focus is on lifting the quality and ensuring adequate investment.

A further challenge is the myriad of privately-owned water supply systems and what may become of those under the new proposal.

Many owners of private supplies are very keen for council to take over their supplies for a variety of reasons, including cost of compliance with the new water quality requirements and liability if an incident such as the Have lock North outbreak were to occur.

Will government take over those systems as well?

It’s estimated around 800,000 Kiwis get their water from privately-owned supplies.

There are many questions to be answered in this process, and it’s really important councils and the public have plenty of time to consider the options and make considered decisions regarding what is one of the very fundamental requirements of a quality life.

The government’s new regulations are expected to be in place in the second half of this
year.

Compliance with existing and anticipated new regulations is a key driver for our capital investment programme proposed in the draft 2021-31 10-year plan.

I encourage you to read up and have your say.

All the details are on council’s website now, and will be in next week’s Mountain Scene.

Jim Boult is Queenstown’s mayor