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New national drinking water regulator confirmed

Thursday 1st August 2019

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A new central government regulator will take over responsibility for the nation's drinking water supplies after gaps in the current system were exposed by the 2016 Havelock North drinking water contamination that poisoned hundreds and caused four deaths.

The new regulations will require that all water suppliers "adopt a multi-barrier approach drinking water safety" which, by implication, would include disinfectant systems such as water chlorination - a politically sensitive subject in some parts of the country.

To drive home the point that drinking water standards must rise, a new Water Services Bill to be introduced to Parliament shortly will remove the current legislation's "lesser requirement to take 'all practicable steps' to comply".

Local Government and Health Ministers Nanaia Mahuta and David Clark announced the long-signalled decision to create a new regulator, which will extend drinking water regulation to a wide range of small-scale water suppliers. It will exclude individual "self-suppliers" using tank or bore water or another freshwater source.

That change will create 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. Decisions on possible funding assistance will be determined by the end of the year. 

Cabinet papers released with today's announcement suggest those costs could be between $154 million and $409 million.

"This provides a strong reason for the five-year transition period for smaller suppliers," Mahuta's July 1 Cabinet paper says, noting that water services have been subject to "historic under-investment".

The cost of drinking water upgrades for existing regulated entities is estimated at between $309 million and $574 million, while waste and stormwater upgrades are expected to range between $3 billion and $4.3 billion.

The changes effectively remove regional councils from responsibility for drinking water regulation. The Cabinet papers indicate a strong likelihood that the new regulator will also gain some oversight of the other two of the so-called 'three waters' - drinking, storm and waste - when final decisions on the new regulating body are made around September.

They will include whether to create a new standalone regulator or to house its functions within an existing regulatory agency, such as the Environmental Protection Authority.

"For too long, oversight of water has been split between a number of agencies and legislation and, as a result, responsibility has been fractured and ineffective," Mahuta said in a statement. 

The government is also in the process of writing a new National Environmental Standard for waste and stormwater management, for which too little information has been collected in the past. The standard will include a requirement for regional councils to report annually against nationally established environmental performance indicators for publication by a central agency.

Three waters regulation also meshes with the government's separate 'Essential Freshwater' programme, which seeks a holistic approach to the environmental regulation of all forms of fresh and salt water, and a new system for allocating access to freshwater resources.

The latter will require a settlement of the long-standing and so far insoluble issue of how to recognise Maori rights and interests in freshwater that the courts have established exist under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Mahuta's Cabinet paper notes that the government "does not have mandate within this term to address issues such as user charging and royalties, which affects how far we can progress discussions about Maori rights and interests".


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