Friday, 04 January 2019 08:55

Changes coming for water regs

Written by  Hon Nanaia Mahuta, Minister of Local Government 
The Government is looking to make significant changes to the way water is regulated and this will have a big impact on rural water schemes. The Government is looking to make significant changes to the way water is regulated and this will have a big impact on rural water schemes.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta outlines the Government’s moves to ensure safe drinking water and to reduce environmental damage from poorly treated wastewater.

Safe, clean water is a birthright of every New Zealander. 

Wherever they live, Kiwi ratepayers and communities expect to be able to turn on the tap and drink the water without fear of getting sick. They also want to be able to swim in our rivers and lakes, and enjoy beaches free from the worry of raw sewage seeping into the ocean.

Funding is short to achieve the above, and with aging infrastructure, population change, increased tourist numbers and the need to act because of climate change and natural events, the situation will worsen if we neglect it. 

The Havelock North campylobacter outbreak in 2016 made about 5500 people ill and contributed to the deaths of at least four people. Many others suffered long-term health effects as a result of it.

An inquiry recommended a dedicated water regulator, and I have just announced an overhaul of water regulation. NZers deserve nothing less and we need a solution that builds on our own context rather than simply adopting models from overseas.

Along with ministers David Parker (Environment) and David Clark (Health), I aim to take detailed proposals on the new regulatory arrangements to the Cabinet in June 2019. 

By then it will be clearer who will do what and how it will be done. But public safety must be our priority, as must reduced environmental damage and contamination from wastewater.

In some places the notion of ‘mandatory residual treatment’ of water translates to many people as mandatory chlorination. 

That is one option, but there are others; no decisions have been made on mandatory chlorination. The emphasis must be on meeting the higher drinking water and environmental standards and the shape and form of the regulator.

The inquiry also suggested consolidating water service providers but we have not decided on this; it needs discussing with local government which owns most of the water assets and which is facing wide-ranging funding challenges and capability issues, particularly in rural and provincial regions.

Councils in several regions have voluntarily begun to look at the pros and cons of working together; these include in Hawkes Bay, Wellington, Waikato and in the northern South Island.

We want to see continued public ownership of water assets; contrary to speculation, privatisation is not on the agenda and the Government is mindful of the concerns expressed in many regions about this.

Neither does this Government have an amalgamation agenda; we are determined to strengthen local governance, not undermine it. To this end, I aim to discuss further with local government how we can work together more generally to meet the funding and capability issues.

At issue are demographics, climate change and infrastructure, and also financing and debt constraints. 

What are we doing about it? We have instructed the Productivity Commission to review local government funding and financing arrangements. We have progressed an urban growth agenda to assist with better planning in high-growth areas. 

We are working with agencies to explore how central government can better support the relationship between Māori and local government. We are looking at how we can fund the infrastructure necessary for regional growth.

And we have begun by taking concrete steps to ensure the safety and quality of water. 

• Hon Nanaia Mahuta is the Minister of Local Government 

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OPINION: When I started writing this piece, I was sitting in my Kaiapoi office on a sweltering 30-degree summer’s day, and I could hear faint “plops” as youngsters pulled “phat manus” and “bombs” off the bridge into the Kaiapoi River as generations before them have done.

Do they know that the river is deemed “unsuitable” for swimming with E. coli levels of up to 2,420 per 100ml? This information is available on LAWA’s website, Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) - Can I swim here? It makes for sobering reading. With levels this high, we should supply these youngsters with full PPE gear to wear over their shorts. The saddest fact is that this story is repeating itself from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

We are witnessing the systemic collapse of New Zealand’s freshwater systems as our environment can no longer handle the extreme pressure we have placed on it through decades of urban and rural intensification. We have taken too much from our environment and we must start giving back.

Change is coming with a renewed focus on healthy waterways through the National Policy for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM), which the Government announced in August 2020, as well as Plan Change 7 to the Canterbury Land & Water Regional Plan (PC7), which progressed through submissions and a hearing in front of independent hearing commissioners last year.

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This year the Waimakariri Water Zone Committee will focus on priority areas and working with the community to improve our waterways.

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We are ahead of the curve in Waimakariri in terms of engaging with farmers, waterway conservation groups and the wider community, but we still have a long journey ahead to restore our rivers and streams.

We must work together in a united way to leave our land and water for future generations to inherit in a better state than when we found it.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua - As man disappears from sight, the land remains.

Michael Blackwellis is chair of Waimakariri Water Zone Committee.

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