Water Reforms – To be or not to be?
Victor Luca (President)
In my August newsletter I referred to the many challenges that we seniors and future generations are going to be facing without being specific. Many will have guessed what these are. They might include health, education, wealth disparity, climate change and all the problems that it is expected to bring. Another challenge might be how we keep our heads above water financially.
Water is indispensable for life and climate change will exacerbate both its quantity and quality as we go forward. Government is telling us that the present system is unsustainable and requires reform. The only incident they seem to ever cite is that of Havelock North where as a result of gastroenteritis due to a campylobacteria contamination of the water supply 5,500 people fell ill and 45 were hospitalized. It is also possible that the outbreak contributed to four deaths. Sheep faeces was the likely source of the campylobacteria.
Many inquiries into the Havelock North incident highlighted system-wide failures in the water provision and regulation.
Already a new water regulator (https://www.taumataarowai.govt.nz/) has come into being and they are telling us that under the proposed reforms the 70 or so local authorities will be combined into four water entities. At the beginning of the process, which kicked off last year, sweeteners were provided for councils to participate and it was all made to sound like communities will make their own decisions as to whether they opt in or opt out of the process.
In Aotearoa the ownership and rights to water, have long been contentious issues. Does everyone own the water or does no one own it? Do Maori have special interests or not?
We are all aware that in our district water infrastructure has traditionally been developed mainly using rate payer money - often supplemented with some central government assistance - and has been operated and maintained by Whakatāne District Council (WDC) on behalf of rate payers. Water infrastructure consists of things like water treatment plants, pipes in the ground, storage tanks, pumps and so forth. Our district’s water assets are worth over $120 million dollars. The principle source of the water for the majority of our district is the Whakatāne river. It is not a clean source of water due to what goes on upstream of the Valley Road Water Treatment Plant (VRWTP). Quite an involved process is undertaken at the plant to provide water to Whakatāne, Ohope and Coastlands that is able to be drunk without causing harm. Sediment has to be removed from the river water along with nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and metaloids. Pathogens (bugs) need to be killed through a sterilization process that involves chlorination and then treatment with UV light. A diagram of VRWTP process is shown in the above image. As a result of chlorination, a bunch of disinfection byproducts (DBP) are formed. These DBPs are a wide range of organochlorine compounds. I am happy to share details of the process and literature to anyone who wants to know more (phone or e-mail).
Aside from the water produced at the VRWTP, there are more than 100 other smaller water schemes around the district. These cater for other small communities, individuals and farmers. There are also artesian water sources in our district. Some of these schemes are completely unregulated.
For many years, the Whakatāne District Council has done a pretty good job of providing water to the community. We have never, as far as I know, had a major disaster such as at Havelock North. When the river runs low due to droughts, there are challenges that have been well managed so far. We have also to be careful about a potential breakout of blue-green algae. I have been advised that this has never happened so far and WDC is investigating solutions to this in case it does occur. WDC is also searching for alternative or backup sources of water for Whakatāne township and surrounds.
Many readers will be aware that central government wishes to reform the 3-waters system. Three-waters includes drinking water, storm water and waste water (sewerage). The fourth type of water is the water in our fresh water lakes and rivers. Research has shown that up to 40% of our rivers and lakes are experiencing eutrophication which is the excessive growth of plant and algae. This occurs when elements like nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural activities and fecal matter makes its way into these waterways.
In regards to 3-waters (drinking water, storm water and waste water), the idea is that the operations of the 67 local authorities will be consolidated into four water entities. The present government seems to like the number four since it would seem that the 20 District Health Boards are also going to be consolidated into four administrative units.
The main stated drivers of the 3-waters reforms are public safety and economic efficiency. Central government is telling us that by consolidating the water provision functions of councils we can take advantage of economies of scale and get cheaper money to deal with the significant maintenance and development costs that they project are coming down the pike. Much of this additional cost will go toward maintaining and up-grading existing aging infrastructure and also to develop new infrastructure for treating water that is presently not being treated.
If you go onto the internet you will find a dashboard in which you can extract a whole bunch of numbers and projections for each of the 70 or so territorial authorities. I am not a great believer in economic projections since they invariably involve many assumptions and are not always right.
So that the reader has an idea of what I am talking about, the dashboard for Whakatāne District is given in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Whakatāne page of the three waters dashboard showing five panels. https://www.dia.govt.nz/Three-Waters-Reform-RfI#latest-update
You can see that guesses are made about GDP in the top left panel and that financial projections appear in the third central panel. In particular they are telling us that the average annual household cost of water in our district is $1,030. Focusing now on the central financial panel.
Under a reformed system, this value will increase by about 20% to $1,220 per annum by 2051. According to this dashboard, if we do not reform we can expect to pay a whopping $6,250 by 2051. I have not found out yet how they get this number but you can bet that there are plenty of assumptions involved. Even an inflation rate of 3% would be expected to take the $1,030 in value in 2021 to $2,500 by 2051. Interestingly in the fourth panel on the right they are telling us that we are ‘Exceeding expectations’.
The individual dashboards don’t make comparisons with other local authorities easy, so I have extracted all of the data and presented them on two graphs.
Figure 2. Comparison of current average annual cost per district household compared with the projected cost in 2051 following proposed 3-waters reforms.
The graph of Figure 2 shows the average household water costs for 2021 compared with those costs in 2051 if reforms are undertaken.
More will be explained on this topic by one of WDC’s water managers at one of our forthcoming meeting.
You can see that there is a wide disparity in the 2021 average annual household cost of water between councils. MacKenzie Country District households currently pay $2,550 per annum whereas Carterton District households pay a measly $210 per annum. Readers are free to speculate as to why this is so. It can be seen from the graph that Central Government has projections on what households in the different districts will pay in 2051 after reforms. You can see that the curve has been flattened out. I wonder if we have a bit of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ going on here.
The graph of Figure 3 shows current annual household costs (2021) compared with the costs in 2051 if no reforms are undertaken. Some districts are hugely impacted and others not so much.
Figure 3. Comparison of current average annual cost per district household compared with the projected cost in 2051 without 3-waters reforms.
Readers should be aware that the process of reform is far from over and that things are still rather murky. I for one would like to know where Central Government gets its numbers and would have to be convinced that what they are proposing really is a benefit to ratepayers in our district.
There are many other issues swirling around in regards to 3-waters reforms. Among these is the serious question of governance of the four water entities and guarantees over public ownership.
Being a scientist that has worked on the development of novel technologies for decontaminating radioactive wastewater and nuclear waste, I have taken particular interest in this issue and will be studying this unfolding situation with a view to guiding decision making. But we all should have an interest in the governance of one of our most previous resources.
I recommend that readers check out this you tube video produced by Westland Mayor, Bruce Smith.
He really does quite a good job of summarizing what Mayors and councillors know at the moment.
Note that the proposed reforms are not being driven by local government but rather by central government. Therefore folk wishing to provide feedback please provide it to your local MP.
October General Meeting: Due to COVID-19 level 4 restrictions that were applied on Tuesday the 17th of August, and given the uncertainty going forward, our General meeting, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday 25-Aug-21, will now be rescheduled for Wednesday 20-Oct-21 as long as we are back to normal (Level 1 or lower). The speaker will be Bevan Gray, General Manager Infrastructure of Whakatāne District Council. He will speak to us about water infrastructure and 3-waters reforms.
Siva Panadam and Gaye Murphy will also provide a summary of what they learned at the recent Grey Power AGM.
The meeting will be at 10:00 am at the Knox Presbyterian Church hall on Domain Road.
November General Meeting: The speaker for the meeting currently scheduled for Wednesday 17-Nov-21 will be Nigel Clarke who is the Manager of Solid Waste at Whakatāne District Council. He was originally scheduled for 20-Oct-21 but due to the significant community interest in 3-water reforms, we have inverted the order of these two speakers.
Rates: We have been working on determining what rates affordability really means in our district with a median household income of $62,000 per annum. We have been looking at preparing a household budget based on this figure.
Membership Update: We have had a number of new members come on board recently and the committee takes the opportunity to welcome those new members to the fold. A detailed membership update will be given at the meeting.