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Govt opts for standalone, independent tapwater czar

Friday 25th October 2019

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The government will legislate for the creation of a new stand-alone drinking water regulator, possibly before next year's general election.

The decision marks the end of a three-year process that began when contaminated tapwater made more than 5,000 people in Havelock North ill in 2016.

As many as four deaths were attributed to the campylobacter contamination of the public drinking water supply in the Hawke's Bay town, with the source tied back to sheep's droppings getting into the system.

The incident provoked a nationwide inquiry into drinking water standards by the previous National Party-led government, with policy work being folded into the current administration's review of the so-called 'three waters' system in New Zealand, covering drinking, waste and stormwater.

Rather than place a new water regulator inside an existing government agency, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Local Government and Health Ministers Nanaia Mahuta and David Clark announced this morning that some $5.9 million will be set aside over the next two financial years to establish an independent regulator with a sole focus on water quality.

Drinking water will be its primary focus, but a limited range of national regulatory functions relating to waste and stormwater will also sit with the new regulator, which will be established as a Crown agency with a high level of independence.

"Over many years, our regulatory regime has not kept pace with international best practice," said Mahuta. "In addition, enforcement of existing regulation has become fractured and increasingly ineffective."

In essence, fresh water regulation has become the domain of local government, leading to a loss of nationally applied standards and rigour.

Among controversial elements of the system likely to emerge will be how firmly the new regulator insists on chlorination of public drinking water supplies. Cabinet papers released in July suggest total upgrade costs for drinking water suppliers could range between $309 million and $574 million, while waste and stormwater upgrades are expected to range between $3 billion and $4.3 billion. 

Drinking water regulation will also extend to most small-scale water supplies, although it will exclude individual "self-suppliers" using tank or bore water or another freshwater source. 

Estimated costs for a range of remote or standalone facilities, including marae and papakainga Maori community housing, prisons, schools, campgrounds and isolated community water supply systems were estimated at between $154 million and $409 million. Decisions on possible funding assistance will be determined by the end of the year. 

Legislation to create the new entity will be introduced shortly and is expected to be passed in 2020, Mahuta said.


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