A transfer truck moves sewage from Wellington wastewater treatment plant to a landfill in this year's lockdown. Photo: Getty Images

The country’s water woes have come to a head. The head. 

When a sewer burst in the inner Wellington neighbourhood of Mt Cook last month, and sewage bubbled up through a manhole in the middle of the road and overflowed down the street, it forced attention on the city’s dirty, stinking secret. A few kilometres away a fatberg blocked a pipe near Queens Wharf and sent wastewater flowing into the harbour, and sewage again overflowed from manholes and drains at the north end of Titahi Bay beach, running into the sea with no warning to swimmers.

That week, Wellington Water’s annual report revealed the region recorded 2096 bursts, or more than 40 per week over the past 12 months. Floods, seawater and fatbergs will spew sewage into our streets and waterways as the planet warms, according to a paper by Tonkin + Taylor and NIWA.

Should our drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure be owned locally, regionally or centrally? Click here to comment.

It’s not just Wellington. Above Masterton, the Rangitāne iwi is opposing a multi-million dollar dam project to create a 19 billion litre water storage lake.

And in New Plymouth, a fallen tree during Cyclone Gita broke a water main, causing 10,000 homes to lose water for three days and forced another 26,000 to boil water for more than a week. This month, Mayor Neil Holdom is pushing to introduce water meters and hike rates 12 percent in one year, followed by further annual rises, to pay for the $248 million upgrade of the district’s failing water infrastructure. 

 “Nobody likes getting a big bill from the plumber, but most people accept the alternative is unpalatable and that they just need to get on and get it done well.”
– Neil Holdom

“Since the global financial crisis, there has been a chronic and systematic under-investment in these basic services that our residents expect us to look after, deliver safely and not run down,” Holdom said. “Everyone wants safe drinking water and sewage kept in pipes, not polluting our beautiful home.

‘’The status quo isn’t going to cut it. Our households waste a vast amount of water,” he added. “Nobody likes getting a big bill from the plumber, but most people accept the alternative is unpalatable and that they just need to get on and get it done well.”

But though Holdom is right that the country’s will have to grit its teeth and “pay the plumber”, what 2016’s fatal Havelock North campylobacteriosis outbreak highlighted was that small councils lack the expertise and scale to manage complex water infrastructure.

Small councils can’t do big strategic leadership

Tenby Powell quit as mayor of Tauranga last month, expressing frustration at councillors’ perceived inability to think beyond selfish, short-term “parish pump” issues that got them elected, and take a strategic approach to a backlog of infrastructure – water, roads, ports and more.

“It’s certainly not a parish play for parish politicians. If they, as a consequence of that lack of strategic understanding, block initiatives of this sort because they figure they won’t be voted in by their parish, then we have a major problem.”
– Tenby Powell

His resignation came just two days after he gave a forthright presentation to the national ReBuilding Nations infrastructure conference, espousing the critical importance of councils collaborating on bigger projects like Three Waters.

In his first real interview since then, he told Newsroom the Western Bay of Plenty councils should amalgamate, but that’s just a start – he has also been talking more widely with mayors like Paula Southgate, in Hamilton.

With the Port of Tauranga acting as a hub, the mayors want to collaborate on big solutions like roads and a new tunnel through the Kaimai range – but the first priority, he said, was waters. And a Cabinet decision to take it out of councillors’ hands was the only answer, he said. Too many local politicians lacked expertise, and lacked any vision beyond their three-year re-election cycle.

Wellington is “the single best example of failed infrastructure” says former Tauranga Mayor Tenby Powell. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“Wellington, right now, has the single best example of failed infrastructure, and lack of investment,” he said. “They’ve got a complete blowout.”

“Councillors do not have to be expert in the engineering of water, but what they do have to understand is that governance is a strategic play, not a tactical play.

“It’s certainly not a parish play for parish politicians. If they, as a consequence of that lack of strategic understanding, block initiatives of this sort because they figure they won’t be voted in by their parish, then we have a major problem.”

Generations of under-investment

The perilous state of the country’s failing water infrastructure was revealed in an inquiry into the Havelock North outbreak, when 5,500 of the town’s 14,000 residents were estimated to have become ill with campylobacteriosis. Some 45 were subsequently hospitalised, an official report found, and four died. 

The outbreak was traced to contamination of the drinking water supplied by two bores, an inquiry found. “This raised serious questions about the safety and security of New Zealand’s drinking water.”

Now, this month, the Cabinet has agreed to push through the biggest local infrastructure reform since the council amalgamations of the 1980s.

There’s been little fanfare. No speeches. No Government press conferences or Ministerial media releases.

But the $50 billion proposal will slash city and district councils’ balance sheets in half, handing over ratepayer water treatment and distribution infrastructure to about four big new government-owned water agencies. If you don’t know about the Three Waters reforms, it’s time to sit up and listen.

$50b work needed on dilapidated pipes and plants

Research conducted for the Government by the Water Industry Commission for Scotland, a recognised world leader in restructuring water supply and disposal, says bringing New Zealand’s water services up to scratch could cost $27 to $46 billion over the next 30 years – but that’s without counting population growth and earthquake mitigation. Once those are added in, the commission itself acknowledges the figure will come in on the high side.

Cabinet and research papers, proactively released late on Friday afternoon, show the cost of addressing years of under-funding. And while $50 billion sounds high, some in local government believe it will be far higher still if Government doesn’t urgently seize control from the country’s 67 city and district councils and 11 regional councils. 

The Cabinet last week signed off a bullish “opt-out” reform programme, where the water infrastrcture would be moved to the new agencies (and councils would be compensated millions of dollars) unless councils actually voted to stay outside the new system. If they agree, they are expected to be paid millions, even billions, in compensation. If they don’t agree nicely, it’s likely to be forced on them.

In this scenario, the country’s would be divided into four regions to manage the water infrastructure. Source: Water Industry Commission for Scotland

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta and her colleagues are understood to have indicated they prefer between three and five specialised water entities, each one taking over responsibility for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater for its region, by late 2023 or 2024.

Conveniently, the Water Industry Commission’s middle scenario is for four water regions. One would take in much of the South Islands, acknowledging Ngāi Tahu’s request that the water agency be aligned with the big iwi’s rohe.

Another would take in the remaining South Island – Marlborough, Tasman and Golden Bay and all the lower North Island up to and including Taranaki, King Country and East Cape.

The third would encompass all of Waikato, Taupo, Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty.

And finally, the biggest population base would sit in a water agency that embraces all of Auckland and Northland.

Opt-in or opt-out?

Tenby Powell says the sums to maintain and upgrade the country’s water infrastructure are “extraordinary” and “eyewatering”. And the reality is, the big cities will end up subsidising the water infrastructure of the smaller towns.

“But if we put that into the context of having safe drinking water – the 2016 issue in Hastings where four died and over 5000 were infected with campylobacter – we just can’t have than in New Zealand.”

He said water infrastructure made up nearly 50 percent of the Tauranga City Council balance sheet, and it would be similar in other towns like Hamilton and Wellington. The bigger cities would have to work effectively with their smaller neighbours, and also with neighbouring big cities.

But there was a danger that councillors in smaller districts, especially, would resist the perceived attack on their empires; that they would object to their councils’ powers being reduced.

Frustration with that was part of why he quit last month, he said. “If being a councillor is your job that you need to fund your lifestyle or your family or pay your mortgage, then man, this is not the place to be. And yet we are shrouded in that. People panicking two years out about being re-elected. It just absolutely stunned me. And so the decisions are not strategic. They are all about pandering to a local group of ratepayers’ associations, which can be completely misaligned with the strategic needs of a subregion or region.”

And that problem was also why the Cabinet was right to agree an “opt out” model, where the starting point was that every council hand overs its water assets.

“Years of infrastructure neglect means we are now in a position where we can’t be kicking a can along a potholed road any more,” Powell said. “I think that it’s great government is taking this initiative. I’m a big fan of this. It’s time to take water out of the electoral cycle, there is no doubt about that.

“This requires a level of technical expertise. I don’t know that all councils have that, and it’s something that needs to be taken very seriously. And to have it in the hands of experts who understand water and how to make it work and make it flow and continue to ensure that it’s safe as population growth puts greater pressure on infrastructure – that’s going to be very important.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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