Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The ins and opt-outs of new water schemes

Neal Wallace
Water reform will directly affect farmers who tap into mixed-use, council-owned schemes.
Water Services Reform officials are setting out their stall at National Fieldays at Mystery Creek to hear and field questions on rural water plans under the reformed Three Waters programme.
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Proposed reform of New Zealand’s Three Waters infrastructure will impact more than just urban schemes.

Craig McKibbin, the Water Services Reform rural interface manager, said it will directly impact farmers who are involved in council-owned mixed-use rural water schemes – those who are connected to or drain into town supply schemes.

Water Services Reform staff are attending the National Fieldays at Mystery Creek where, McKibbin said, they want to listen to and hear the concerns of rural people.

“We want to understand what the concerns are with water service reforms.”

The government has restructured the contentious policy, which initially proposed four entities nationwide to manage drinking, waste water and stormwater systems that are currently administered by 67 councils.

That has been changed, with 10 entities now proposed. The government said they will have the economic clout to progress infrastructure repairs and replacement it estimates will cost up to $185 billion.

McKibbin said the proposed model will allow entities to secure and service borrowing for the works over a longer period than councils can currently do, making the cost to ratepayers more affordable.

He acknowledged concern among farmers about the cross-subsidisation – rural ratepayers paying for urban three-water works they do not derive a benefit from.

McKibbin said cross-subsidisation, while potentially contentious, is not new.

One issue he hopes to discuss with farmers is the future of council-owned mixed-use rural water schemes.

When the entities are established from July 1 2026, McKibbin said, the schemes will become part of the entity, but users can opt out.

To qualify, a scheme must use 85% of its water for agriculture or horticulture and have less than 1000 drinking water takes.

To opt out, it must be able to show it has the ability to govern and manage the scheme – and have agreement of 75% of users.

McKibbin has attended regional field days, where one of the concerns raised is the potential loss of local expertise and knowledge from the regions as council staff are recruited or shift to the new entities. The transitional group is looking at the issue.

“We understand the rural sector’s concern and the importance in terms of infrastructure management and institutional knowledge,” he said.

Governance has also been contentious, with critics claiming mana whenua will have a disproportionate influence on the Regional Representative Group, compared to those elected by ratepayers.

McKibbin said each council within an entity will have one representative on the Regional Representative Group, with mana whenua having the same number.

This is considered consistent with rights promised under the Treaty of Waitangi and the obligations to Māori as kaitiaki, to protect the health and mauri of water.

The Regional Representative Groups will employ the entity’s corporate board, set performance expectation and strategic direction, and hold the board to account.

The corporate board will be responsible for governing the entity, appointing the chief executive and monitoring the executive of the strategy.

McKibbin and his staff will be at site K28.

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