Local council figures respond to new water authority

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne says his council has spent about $11 million to meet the 2004 government guidelines. - Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Former Nelson mayor Paul Matheson remembers the political war over spending $26 million on a water treatment plant.

The high-tech filtration plant opened in 2004, creating a gold standard in drinking water that flows from Nelson taps.

"In those days, that sort of money - $26 million, was huge and we went ahead. I was getting some very strange calls at midnight and at other times from people who felt I was on the wrong track but it's been done and dusted and now there's just an expectation that we'll live on that quality A-grade (water) forever."

Fifteen years ago the government announced radical changes to drinking water standards aimed at prompting councils to lift their game. In 2004 the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Health got together to develop and implement a national environmental standard.

Yet in 2016 four people died and 5000 people fell ill after Havelock North's water supply was contaminated with campylobacter.

The government has now announced more changes to the way drinking water will be managed, wresting control from local authorities and putting it in the hands of a new central authority.

Some mayors hope the new authority will create a more uniform approach. Since the introduction of the standards in 2004 some councils have spent millions upgrading water supply points and treatment plants, and some have not.

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne said his council had spent about $11 million at its various plants to meet the 2004 government guidelines.

"That's been governing what councils are supposed to do, and how they're supposed to deliver safe drinking water."

The Tasman council has budgeted a further $27 million over the next decade to carry out further upgrades, in response to what happened in Havelock North.

The latest changes have been triggered by what happened in the Hawke's Bay town in 2016.

Former Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule said it was not that the council challenged the rules. Investment was made in the drinking water supply, but it fell through the cracks of disjointed bureaucracy.

"In this case I don't think you could blame the standards, but for a significant number of years - from 2004 on, local government was saying effectively, 'well these are new standards, we've got some time to get there and there's going to be a cost in getting there, but how are we meant to fund that'.

"That's really what happened."

lawrence yule

Former Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule. Photo: lgnz

Mr Yule said the lack of uniform approach since 2004 would be what a new regulator would look at.

"One of the key learnings was that the water source security, and the relationship between the Hastings District and the Hawke's Bay Regional Council in terms of managing the risk of source contamination, was poor.

"A water regulator will look at that rather than the regional council looking at RMA issues, and the district council looking at potable water safety issues," Mr Yule said.

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett said the new regulations, and the announcement of a dedicated watchdog, were intended to introduce a more coherent oversight approach to the provision of drinking water.

But he said there were still many unknowns, and Lawrence Yule agreed.

"So what will this regulator do, what are the changes in standards, and to what degree are they going to make changes or influence.

"All that stuff is unknown, from what I've been able to read so far."

A national review of drinking water quality in 2007-08 found that most large communities had water supplies that complied with health standards.

But many smaller communities were getting what was called "microbiologically non-compliant drinking-water".

The government had already said the changes could cost ratepayers, but it would be looking to handle things in an equitable way.

Paul Matheson said while Nelson managed to scrape together the funds to build a new plant, smaller local authorities just did not have the ratepayer resources to finance such projects.

"If the government is going to say, 'you have to do it', then with all due respect to the government, they need to cough up.

"They didn't when we built our's - we tried but they said no, but if they're to bring in these requirements then they have to cough up."

Richard Kempthorne said the Nelson and Tasman councils were in talks about managing drinking water together, and extending that offer to the West Coast.

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