Friday, July 1, 2022

Some rural suppliers may avoid Three Waters

Neal Wallace

About 100 council-owned schemes that supply water for drinking and agricultural use could be sold to users and not included in the Government’s new water services entities, part of its Three Waters Policy.

This is one of 30 recommendations from a Rural Supplies Technical Working Group set up by the Department of Internal Affairs, which also says ownership of these mixed-use schemes could be transferred if they predominantly supply stock or irrigation water and in cases where ownership is unclear.

“This would apply to schemes that are critical to farming and whose users have the capability and resources to operate them without support from councils or water services entities,” the committee report states.

The “tens of thousands” of small privately-owned rural water schemes will remain in private ownership but an unknown number will be subject to water quality regulations from the new regulator Taumata Arowai.

Technical working group chairman Bryan Cadogan says a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for rural water schemes, but that does not mean issues facing water services can be ignored.

The group’s primary consideration was to ensure safer, better and affordable drinking water services are available for all rural New Zealanders than debating the merits of the Three Waters policy.

“We are confident that our recommendations provide a framework for the recognition of the particular interests of our rural communities through the reform process,” Cadogan says.

The possible transfer of scheme ownership to users reflects the primary use of those schemes is for stock water and irrigation.

“It’s clear that one size does not fit all when it comes to water reforms in our rural communities.”

Stuart Crosby
Local Government NZ

“Drinking water provision is an incidental benefit of the supplies,” he says.

“Many are governed, managed and operated as if they were private supplies through the intimate involvement of farmers and other users with long standing family connections with these supplies.”

The group did not consider any cost from the transfer of water scheme ownership, but Cadogan expects many will not involve a financial exchange.

Bill Bayfield, the chief executive of water quality regulator Taumata Arowai, says for some mixed-use schemes 90% of water is used for agriculture but the absence of alternative domestic water sources means users have to tap into those schemes.

The group’s report found that users fear that once scheme ownership is transferred to the Government’s new entities, they will not have input into management and operation nor security of supply especially for agricultural use.

Another concern was the future cost of water.

The group does not want any cross-subsidisation between drinking, wastewater and stormwater systems or from rural to urban schemes.

Privately-owned rural drinking water schemes not captured by reform and not shifted to water service entities will have several years before having to register with regulator Taumata Arowai as a drinking water supplier.

The group acknowledged community concern about complying with new drinking water regulations but says Taumata Arowai is considering “multiple compliance pathways for small and rural supplies” to balance safety and compliance costs.

For example, the health and safety risks of handling chlorine by those who have not done it before may outweigh public health risks.

The report says the number of consumers could be a proxy for calculating any water quality risk.

“While it is acknowledged that there is no ideal approach, the population approach has the fewest issues when considered against alternatives such as distinguishing supplies based on water volume, or number of drinking water services’ connections.”

The report says that if a scheme servicing 25 to 50 people is deemed as small, an estimated 75,000 drinking water suppliers would face lower compliance.

Local Government NZ welcomes the option of community ownership of schemes mostly used for stock or irrigation.

President Stuart Crosby says such a move would be a win for rural communities.

“It’s clear that one size does not fit all when it comes to water reforms in our rural communities.”

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