Top brass fails to take adequate actions to remedy water quality – again.
Water supplies at five army and air force bases have failed basic safety standards, the Ministry of Health reports.
The drinking water at Waiōuru, Ohakea, Linton, Woodbourne and Burnham, together serving 10,300 people, all failed to meet standards. And since that reporting period closed, the Defence Force has also issued a precautionary boil water notice at Tekapo Military Camp, after low chlorine levels were detected in February.
It was a result of commissioning troubles with a new water treatment plant that had since been resolved, Defence said. The notice was lifted after chlorine levels returned to normal and there were three clear E. Coli tests.
Last year E. Coli was detected in a sample from the water supply at Waiōuru, which serves 2800 people, but the Defence Force failed to take all adequate actions to remedy the problem, the report says.
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“The presence of E. coli in water indicates recent contamination with faeces,” the report warns. “The presence of other faecal pathogens … must be assumed. Detection of E. coli shows that the barriers between contaminants and the community have failed. Consequently, suppliers must immediately investigate all E. coli transgressions and take remedial action.”
The Defence Force rejected that: it said the water sample was contaminated, rather than the water supply, but it did acknowledge its reporting hadn’t been up to scratch. It would be embarking on a “major upgrade” of the Waiouru water supply next year, to get it up to protozoal compliance standards.
Waiouru also failed the protozoal standards because record-keeping was inadequate and turbidity levels at times were too high, and it failed the chemical standards because a disinfection by-product produced as part of the disinfection process exceeded the maximum acceptable value, and it took inadequate actions to address that issue.
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This report summarises drinking-water compliance for all 486 registered networked drinking-water supplies serving populations of more than 100 people. In total, they account for water supplies to 4,142,000 people. It showed a nationwide 1.3 percent improvement in compliance with protozoal standards – but not at the Defence bases.
The Government estimates around 34,000 people become sick every year from their drinking water, and says around 900,000 people drink water that is not adequately tested for two contaminants known to be common causes of sickness outbreaks internationally: Cryptosporidium and giardia. It also believes around 800,000 people drink water that is not regulated at all. The overwhelming majority of those supplies will not be meeting drinking water standards, meaning it is unclear if the water is safe.
But while the Government plans to move the council water supplies into four big new regional water authorities, other government agencies with their own water will retain their water infrastructure. Examples are schools and Defence bases.
A Department of Internal Affairs spokesperson said the Three Waters Reform Programme was focused on council-owned Three Waters assets and services only. “At this stage Crown-owned assets, for example, the Three Waters assets of the Defence Force or schools will remain in the control of those providers,” he said.
“The no-swim notices on our beaches, the frequent and sometimes near permanent boil-water notices for some of our communities from bacterial or protozoal contamination; the erupting sewer pipes on some city streets; lead contamination in the water; consent-breaching sewage overflows into our urban rivers, streams, lakes and coastal environments – I know this is a situation none of us want.”
– Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister
The water supply at Ohakea Air Force base, serving a population of 800, also failed the protozoal standards because disinfectant levels were not always adequate and
turbidity levels at times were too high.
At Linton Military Camp near Palmerston North, with a population of 3,500, the water supply failed the protozoal standards because Defence didn’t even have adequate infrastructure in place.
Down south at Woodbourne Air Force Base, the water supply serves 1,500 people. There, it failed the protozoal standards because there were calibration issues, turbidity levels at times were too high and some process measurements exceeded limits.
Finally at Burnham Military Camp, with a population of 1,700, Defence was forced to put in place a temporary boil-water notice because of water safety concerns. It failed the protozoal measures because it didn’t even try to comply with safety standards.
This comes after Newsroom revealed soldiers at the Burnham military camp had in 2018 been restricted to two-minute showers and barred from using flush urinals, following an E.coli scare in which wastewater leached into private bores around the base. The Army promised to improve its processes.
Mark Brunton, the head of defence estate and infrastructure, said the safety of drinking water safety had been a particular area of focus since the Havelock North event in 2016. New water specialist positions had been filled, policy and procedures developed, and major infrastructure improvements designed and commissioned – but he acknowledge it was still a work in progress.
The Waiouru E. Coli was based on one positive E. Coli result that subsequent investigations found to be due to a contaminated sample, rather than the presence of E.coli in the water supply, he said. “However, the NZ Defence Force acknowledges that its response in that case did not meet the required timeframes.
“The Waiouru water treatment plant requires a major upgrade to achieve compliance with protozoal requirements, and also to address the issue with disinfection by-products. Detailed design for this upgrade is complete and it is expected procurement will commence early in 2022.”
He said the Ohakea water treatment plant generally performed to a very high standard, but filtration or ultraviolet disinfection performance levels dropped slightly below required levels on three days in the reporting year.
Linton’s water was sourced from very deep artesian aquifers, from bores between 150m and 342m deep. “Testing indicates that the water has been isolated from the surface for 50 to 100 years on average, and E. Coli has never been found in bore water samples. The boreheads have also recently been upgraded to reduce risk of surface contamination.”
But this was no longer enough to comply with new rules. “This means that major upgrades to the treatment process are required to achieve compliance. The NZ Defence Force is in the process of developing those upgrades.”
At Woodbourne, due to the age of the original treatment plant, there had been difficulties retrofitting of instrumentation to demonstrate compliance, particularly with protozoal compliance. The Defence Force would be procuring a brand-new, purpose-built treatment plant and storage reservoirs to replace the old water tower and treatment system.
And finally, at Burnham during the commissioning of the new water treatment plant and network pump system, changes in flow direction through existing pipes had shifted sediment, which in turn reduced chlorine levels in part of the network. “When low chlorine levels were detected, NZ Defence Force flushed the mains and issued a boil water notice as a precaution, in consultation with the local drinking water assessor, until levels returned to normal.”
That was the drinking water. At the time of the earlier E. Coli wastewater problems at Burnham, camp commandant Major Grant Payton said the water issues did not affect the quality of the drinking water in the Burnham camp or housing area. The rules on showers and urinals were a short-term solution to help mitigate the amount of water being pumped through the treatment plant, while NZ Defence Force worked with the Selwyn District Council on a longer-term solution.
Residents using bore water at three properties downstream of the Burnham camp were asked by the Selwyn District Council to boil their drinking water, while they also had access to the council’s water supply.
“What most people don’t seem to realise is every base is a small town, every base commander is effectively a mayor. We’ve got exactly the same infrastructure issues inside the Defence Force as every local government has – the problem is we’ve got to government and get the money, we can’t tax people.”
– Ron Mark
Concerns about the condition of Defence Force facilities around New Zealand have been raised by the most senior military officials in the country. Speaking to Newsroom before stepping down as Defence Force chief, Tim Keating warned military bases would soon become “unliveable” unless something was done to fix them. Some buildings were still in use despite being constructed as temporary facilities for World War II.
And NZ First’s Ron Mark, who was Defence Minister at the time, said Burnham’s wastewater problems showed the Defence Force was facing similar problems as local councils when it came to infrastructure deficits. “What most people don’t seem to realise is every base is a small town, every base commander is effectively a mayor,” he said. “We’ve got exactly the same infrastructure issues inside the Defence Force as every local government has – the problem is we’ve got to government and get the money, we can’t tax people.”
The Ministry of Health report identifies failings at many small water supplies, and a few bigger ones. Criticisms include:
* Carterton District Council, supplying 5,230 people, failed to take prompt remedial action to protect public health when an issue was discover. “Prompt action is required when the contaminants are microbiological, because pathogens can cause acute illness,” the report says. “Drinking-water suppliers must seek to remedy any faults they have identified in their system that may adversely affect the safety or compliance of the supply.”
The breaches were at its Frederick St bore and Kaipatangata Stream sources. The report covers the 2019-20 year, and Carterton district council said much work has been done to meet the measures since then. However, Carterton drinking water subsequently tested positive for E. coli in March this year.
A Council spokesperson said the Carterton was in the process of changing the programming of the plant processes, alarms and how they were recorded at Frederick St water treatment plant and the Kaipaitangata stream. Since the report, all three UV treatments had been upgraded with higher rated reactors and new control cabinets. “In regards to the low level E. coli readings in early 2021 – the council acted immediately after receiving the results and the community was notified within an hour that a boil water notice was in place.”
* Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Pirongia, and Tokoroa failed to meet the bacteriological standards.
* Kaitāia, Kerikeri, Thames, Blenheim and Alexandra water supplies didn’t have water safety plans;
The Government has now established Crown entity Taumata Arowai, which will take over from the Ministry of Health as New Zealand’s drinking water regulator, if the Water Services Bill is passed later this year. Bill Bayfield, a former chief executive of Bay of Plenty and Canterbury regional councils, has been named as inaugural chief executive for the agency.
“At this stage Crown-owned assets, for example, the three waters assets of the Defence Force or schools will remain in the control of those providers. It’s important to note that these Crown providers will be required to meet the same drinking water and environmental standards as the four new water entities.”
– Department of Internal Affairs
That law will affirm drinking water suppliers’ primary duty to supply safe drinking water, and set in place transition arrangements requiring that large suppliers serving 500 or more people must have a drinking water safety plan by the end of the first year. Smaller suppliers have a five-year transition period to complete their drinking water safety plans.
Taumata Arowai emphasises that the new law is being implemented according to scale, complexity and risk – not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Suppliers’ drinking water safety plans must record a risk-based assessment and management process that aims to make sure there is a safe and secure supply of drinking water for consumers.
The Internal Affairs spokesperson said it was important to note that Crown providers like Defence bases and schools would still be required to meet the same drinking water and environmental standards as the four new water entities, and be subject to compliance by Taumata Arowai and regional council regulators respectively.
“The Three Waters Reform Programme is engaging regularly with Crown providers to ensure they are abreast of the reform programme’s progress,” he said. “As with other non-council providers, such as churches and marae not on council-reticulated services, it is anticipated that over time there might be opportunities for these water providers and users to enter into mutually agreeable service arrangements with the water entities.”
At the Defence Force, Mark Brunton echoed that. “Government agency suppliers will not be covered by the proposed new water service entities,” he confirmed. “However, the NZ Defence Force may in future consider mutually agreeable service arrangements with the entities if opportunities arise.”
And indeed, after the wastewater problems at Burnham, Defence is shutting down the camp’s wastewater treatment plant. It has connected its wastewater up to the Selwyn District Council treatment plant at Rolleston, and is to commence pumping this month.
Last month Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke to mayors at a local government conference in Blenheim. She said safe, affordable drinking water and good quality wastewater and stormwater services were critical for the health and wellbeing of New Zealand’s communities and environment.
“These are hallmarks of developed, well-functioning societies,” she said. “But more than that. I think we all see water as a taonga for all New Zealanders.
That was why the Government had established Taumata Arowai. “All the evidence shows that while there are a great many dedicated people around the country working hard to ensure safe and environmentally sustainable services, very significant investment is needed both now and in the future.
“We have all seen the evidence of this in headlines including the campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North that made 5,500 people sick, led to the tragic deaths of up to four people and had long-term consequences for an unknown number of others – from drinking public water supplies.
“The no-swim notices on our beaches, the frequent and sometimes near permanent boil-water notices for some of our communities from bacterial or protozoal contamination; the erupting sewer pipes on some city streets; lead contamination in the water; consent-breaching sewage overflows into our urban rivers, streams, lakes and coastal environments –
I know this is a situation none of us want.
“This current situation coupled with projected population growth, increasing consumer expectations, risks associated with climate change, seismic events and an ageing water infrastructure network in need of upgrades highlight why we need to look at doing things differently. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect a different result. We need to fix this, and we want to fix it together.”
She said every New Zealand community faced significant investment needs over the next 30 years to simply maintain and upgrade services to the basic quality and standards they deserves.
The Department of Internal Affairs has also said it is looking at establishing a consumer advocacy council for the new water authorities. In a briefing paper, it says: “This council would have the expertise to advocate on behalf of consumers, possibly with an increased focus on the vulnerable groups or those that lack an ability to exert an effective voice, with the water services entities and the drinking water quality and economic regulators.
“There is a similar consumer advocacy council currently being established for the electricity sector in New Zealand. The objective of the Consumer Advocacy Council in the electricity sector is to provide evidence-based policy advocacy for small business and residential electricity consumers to represent their voice to energy regulators.”
Last month, Consumer Affairs Minister Minister David Clark appointed former ASH director Deborah Hart as the inaugural Chair of the Consumer Advocacy Council, to argue on behalf of residential and small business electricity consumers, independently of industry, regulators and Government.
Clark hailed her inclusive approach. “Ms Hart has considerable experience in governance, and a particular skill for helping bring voices to the table where they are missing,” he said.