More than 30 councils will this week hold meetings that are expected to pour cold water on the Government’s reform plans – but a major question is emerging over who will pay to clean up private water supplies.

There are more than 100 growers and their neighbours on the vineyards and orchards of Ripponvale, out the back of Cromwell, who for many years have had their own low-pressure rural water supply. This year, they handed responsibility to Central Otago District Council to ensure their water is safe to drink.

Since taking over the water supply, council engineers have discovered the water supply isn’t fit to cater to a growing population; it leaks, and they need to urgently replace an overland section of pipework extending into the Kawarau Gorge that regularly freezes over the winter period and cuts supply to customers at the end of the scheme. It will cost at least $60,000 to fix.

This is just one of the many, many rural supplies that will be incorporated into council water networks over the next year or two. There are thousands more, some serving just one or two households, that water authorities will be required to ensure meet water quality standards. The discovery of the sheer number of these small private supplies has caught central and local government officials by surprise, and for some councils is a deciding factor in agreeing to relinquish responsibility for their drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

From Ōtorohanga to Southland, there are officials at small rural councils advising elected members, this week, that their local authority is too small to effectively run big and modern water networks. And by contrast, there are others like Christchurch and South Taranaki that this week kicked off a series of extraordinary council meetings resisting the Government’s reform plans.

They and other councils will not, for the most part, formally opt out of the Government’s programme to amalgamate the council’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater assets. But they will insist the Government pauses the project until community concerns about local governance and accountability are addressed.

Christchurch City Council voted unanimously on Monday to reject the Government’s proposed approach to three waters reform, saying the case doesn’t stack up for Christchurch. It will recommend to the community that it opt out of the big plan to merge all the country’s ratepayer-owned water supplies into four big super-regional entities.

“I agree there is a need for reform – and I have always said that,” said Mayor Lianne Dalziel. “However, the model they are promoting is not right for us. We have invested heavily in drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.”

Christchurch and Napier both want exemptions from mandatory chlorination of their drinking water – examples of the bespoke water solutions that they say the big water authorities won’t allow. “This is unacceptable,” Dalziel says.

Southland, Clutha, Christchurch and South Taranaki councils all passed motions on Monday, expressing their unhappiness with the reforms and asking that the Government allow more time for community consultation and to explore alternative models.

For instance, South Taranaki supports a smaller regional water authority. It is one of  several councils that have surveyed ratepayers, who have overwhelmingly supported the retention of their community’s water assets.

At least 11 councils will vote on their feedback on the reforms on Tuesday, including Waimakariri which received a record 3,844 responses to a community survey on whether it should opt out of the reforms. 95 percent said yes, opt out.

Another seven councils will cast votes on Wednesday, as they agree their responses to government officials ahead of a feedback deadline of September 30.

Two of the 30-plus councils that plan to take a vote this week are expected to formally opt out of the programme. Westland and Grey District are among a group of disgruntled South Island councils, with neighbours Hurunui and Kaikōura also expressing serious concerns.

Westland mayor Bruce Smith told Newsroom this week that the council would vote on a motion to oppose the model and seek to opt out of the reforms. And in neighbouring Grey District, mayor Tania Gibson said their community, too, was overwhelmingly opposed. "There will be a motion put forth to Council that the Grey District opts out of the Government's proposed Three Water Reform," she said. 

By contrast, Ōtorohanga councillors will vote this week on committing to continued active involvement in progressing the reforms. Their officials' report acknowledges the reasons behind the water reforms and the challenges councils like theirs would face in the future, with infrastructure renewals and staying up to date with new levels of compliance. "Couple that with the increasing threat of climate change, increasing environmental challenges and skills shortages, it is not a simple road ahead.

Ōtorohanga stops short of formally voting to "opt in" to the programme. Indeed, many councils have legal advice that they can neither opt in, nor opt our, without fully consulting their communities. They might face a risk of litigation if they were to make a premature decision, one way or the other.

And there is some rare good news for Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Councils in Southland and Otago are begrudgingly accepting that, although they don't like the reforms, the alternatives of holding onto the water assets themselves or collaborating in a regional management company are simply not viable.

Like Hawke's Bay, Taranaki and some others, the country's southernmost districts had been looking to go back to Government with a regional solution,

The realisation of the risk they would accept in taking over thousands of private water networks is a factor in their change of tune.

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

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