Bill Bayfield, boss of the new drinking water regulator, was not expecting to find himself at the centre of a heated and often uninformed and highly politicised debate around water reform when he took the CEO job. He talked to Nikki Mandow about what it’s been like.
A personal anecdote. This time last year I wrote a few articles about water reform. In one of them, Wellington water chaos, a warning for all, I argued New Zealand wouldn’t be in the water mess we are in if councils, forced by law to put money aside to cover depreciation of their water assets, had actually spent that money on renewing their water assets. As a topic, it was a bit pointy-headed and it finished with the line: “They should have listened to their accountants.”
The article didn’t get a big response, but the comments I got were measured, thoughtful interesting. Like this one:
“[Rather than the accountants], they should have listened to the engineers,” said Gordon Reynolds. “That is if the engineers were given an opportunity to speak. Having spent a number of years working as a local body project engineer I can confirm engineers who are concerned about underground infrastructure get a very poor reception because that can’t provide pretty pictures to politicians.
“The other problem is that the technology for investigating the condition of pipelines has been around for over 40 years and is very sophisticated, but has always been too expensive to trump new swings or park furniture.”
Then last week I wrote another water story: Urgent need to change the narrative on Three Waters. My argument still focused on the problems with water infrastructure, but this time based on the results of the latest annual report into the state of our water networks. The situation in many water authorities is, not to put too fine a point on it, a disgrace. Some sort of water reform was urgently needed.
(Note that report was written before we found out Wellington Water decided not to repair or replace its fluoridation plant and instead left the capital with not enough fluoride in its water for close to four years – and for the past 10 months with none at all. But that’s another story.)
Anyway, my latest water assets article was also a little bit pointy-headed and based on a factual report.
I got more feedback this time, much of it measured and thoughtful, albeit with a touch of “asset theft” creeping in. And then this comment arrived, not on the public channel, but emailed to Newsroom’s editors.
“Just read Nikki Mandow’s piece on 3 waters – what an appalling piece of propaganda! This entire 3 waters program is being driven by vested interests who want to get their hands on hundreds of millions in fees, plus a few within local government water services who can see lucrative careers for themselves in the new entities.”
Further down: “Much of the problem with infrastructure has arisen from the unhinged surge in our national population that has resulted from central government immigration policies over the past decade or so.”
And to finish: “Why not start writing think pieces on where NZ needs to be heading – rather than claptrap like this item of Nikki’s – we have just entered drastically changing times – and the need to adapt is urgent.”
To be fair, this reader makes a valid point around a figure Minister Nanaia Mahuta has used in her arguments – 34,000 New Zealanders getting sick from their drinking water each year. I quoted Mahuta quoting this figure without verifying its source.
But the vitriol behind the criticism is indicative of where the Three Waters debate has moved – from concern about poor water infrastructure to political rhetoric about asset seizure, iwi control, poor regulation and poorer governance.
If you want more evidence of the sane and the insane around this debate I can highly recommend this Reddit discussion, which started with the question “What is Three Waters and why are people mad about it?”
Just a couple of teasers…
You probably get the picture. Even at the sane end of the spectrum, over the nine months or so since the Government announced it was moving responsibility for “Three Waters” – drinking water, wastewater and stormwater – from 67 council entities to four large publicly-owned water entities, water has become a political hot potato.
There have been High Court challenges, the formation of a 31-council water protest organisation called Communities for Local Democracy (C4LD) and anti-Three Waters reform campaigners joining the Groundswell tractor rallies around the country last July and the more recent anti-mandate protest outside Parliament.
Enter Bill Bayfield
If the insults are happening to me, they are definitely happening to Bill Bayfield. As chief executive of the new(ish) water regulator Taumata Arowai, Bayfield finds himself in the middle of a complicated political storm around Three Waters reform, most of which isn’t even to do with him or his organisation.
His job, for the next two-three years at least, is to get New Zealand’s drinking water up to scratch. To make sure the pipes aren’t leaking (or perhaps worse, being leaked into), that the treatment plants work, that ageing infrastructure is replaced, that someone’s watching to ensure water suppliers test their bores properly, act when there are problems, and tell their customers what’s going on (think Wellington Water and fluoride again). He wants to be sure as far as possible that a Havelock North-style water poisoning disaster never happens again.
Actually, it doesn’t matter to Bayfield whether Taumata Arowai is regulating 67 local government (read ratepayer)-owed water infrastructure organisations, or four large central government (read taxpayer)-owned ones.
But that doesn’t mean his remit isn’t tangled up with the more general fight. Or that it isn’t tough sometimes.
“I’ve been a regulator across three different regional councils – Taranaki, Bay of Plenty and Canterbury – and involved in the more regulatory side at the Ministry of Environment, and I must admit there are times when it gets under your skin.”
He’s had worse vitriol over other issues in his career, he says, but maybe none that has surprised him more.
“I am amazed this is happening following Havelock North, following the inquiry.”
But that’s only made him more determined.
“When you get that kind of feedback, it’s interesting how it causes you to question what you’re doing. And if you question what you’re doing against your own values and beliefs, and you come to the conclusion that what you’re actually providing New Zealand is important, and you actually value it, then you don’t mind taking occasional bad stuff along the way.
“The vast majority of feedback I get is from those in the health sector, who are saying this really has to occur.”
The wrath of the small supplier
The main area where public anger – particularly from the rural community – is directed at Taumata Arowai-led reform is over small water suppliers. Historically, a farmer providing water for a few local baches or a small water provider servicing a few dozen people in a rural community have been exempted from drinking water quality standards.
That’s changed. Around 75,000 previously unregistered small suppliers will now be regulated by Taumata Arowai, and that’s worrying not only the suppliers, but the households being supplied.
Rumours have been circulating about small suppliers being expected to fork out thousands of dollars for water safety plans and treatment equipment – chlorination or UV – and potentially just deciding it’s not worth the effort.
This combined with the “asset grab” rhetoric has sparked a lot of the protests, Bayfield says.
“These are people that have never been regulated before and suddenly – here come the bureaucrats. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
– Bill Bayfield, Taumata Arowai
“They have four years to register their supply [by November 2025] but somehow in the Three Waters kerfuffle that timeframe has been forgotten.”.
“Some small suppliers are worried that the reform is going to involve their assets being taken – but it won’t. They are scared it’s going to happen tomorrow, but it isn’t.
“These are people that have never been regulated before and suddenly – here come the bureaucrats. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
Taumata Arowai is working with about 1200 small suppliers, including 250 rural schools, to put together water safety plans to ensure people are getting safe drinking water, while at the same time not putting too much burden on the suppliers.
“We’re using these suppliers as a sort of pilot so we get a regime that makes sure there is safe drinking water but doesn’t drive suppliers nuts with bureaucracy and cost.”
While a big provider in a major city – Watercare in Auckland, for example – might be expected to test water at various points in the system every day, a low-risk rural supplier – “someone operating a farm supply to five buildings on a sheep country station” – might be testing just a couple of times a year.
A rural school would be expected to put a water safety plan together looking at the different risk factors in its own water supply, Bayfield says.
“How close is the source of the water? How extensive is the reticulation network? Is anyone else connected to that network – a farm, for example, with tanks or water troughs? All of these introduce risk, and that’s where I’d expect the school to do the assessment and produce its own drinking water safety plan and to recommend that they were going to test x number of times.
“Surely a kid in one school deserves the same safe drinking water as a kid in another school, so why should it matter if a school has 30 kids or 300?
“We are looking for an ‘acceptable solution’.”
Stepping up the pressure
On the other hand, the regulator is getting tough on bigger suppliers.
A rough calculation from the latest ministry Annual Report on Drinking Water Quality shows at the time covered by the report, 2019-2020, more than 5,750 people in 25 areas can’t drink the water from their tap – their supply is affected by a permanent ‘boil water’ notices. Many of these have been in place for years.
Take Waimangaroa, on the West Coast. Some critical piece of infrastructure collapsed years ago in a storm and wasn’t replaced. According to the ministry report, Waimangaroa had e-coli in 50 percent of the water quality testing samples taken.
Meanwhile, people in some quite big centres had to boil water at least some of the time. Kawerau (population 7700), Featherston (2600), Reefton (951), Alexandra (6000), Gore (7480). Even Christchurch (335,500)
The 1700 inhabitants of Kinloch, near Taupo, had e-coli in 1.3 percent of its water samples, plus traces of arsenic.
Glenkenich, in Otago (705) had e-coli in 3 percent of monitoring samples, took “inadequate action” to address that issue, did not have an implemented water safety plan, and doesn’t even test its water properly.
Glenkenich’s water supply did not comply with the Health Act, the report said, and didn’t meet the bacterial, protozoal or chemical standards for safe drinking water.
Glenkenich and many others.
The impact of a regulator
But Bayfield believes just the existence of a drinking water regulator is already having an impact. All drinking water testing labs now have to be registered and accredited, and Taumata Arowai gets automatically notified of any breaches.
There’s been a “massive increase” in the amount of water-related expenditure going into councils’ three year plans, he says.
In Glenkenich, for example, the council has started work to upgrade local treatment plants and “compliance” should be achieved later this year.
Meanwhile, the Buller District Council last year approved an almost $2 million budget to build a water treatment plant and install treated water storage for Waimangaroa’s 250 residents, previously getting untreated water from a local creek.
“This decision represents Council’s best efforts to satisfy our obligations as water suppliers whist being pragmatic about the options, cost and risks,” Mayor Jamie Cleine said. “These are difficult decisions, but after 12 years it was surely time to commit to a way forward.”
Bayfield says it’s not just investment that’s being beefed up – it’s transparency about problems or potential problems.
“I think a lot more people are telling us about problems that they have within their treatment system in a timely manner. And that’s really important.”
He says one of the key differences between the Water Services Act 2021 and the previous legislation is the new regime “looks a lot like the Health and Safety Act”.
“As a supplier, it’s your responsibility to deliver safe water for the health of your community. And it’s your responsibility to tell your community when things aren’t right.
“The best example of this right now, and it’s not something that we manage at Taumata Arowai, but it is fluoride in Wellington.”
The scars from Havelock North
Bayfield says although the protesters may be loud, the voices in favour of reform are more numerous.
“The number of people that I’ve met who have said, you know: ‘I’ve got three kids under five and I’ve never been able to find out what the water quality is that I get out of 10, you know, in a rural situation.
“And you realise that’s not on.”
He says he’s visited Havelock North more than once – “just to experience it, just to feel it”.
“We gave eight and a half thousand people campylobacter, and you have to ask how did we do that? How did the system do that?”
– Bill Bayfield
It’s not just the people who died or were permanently impacted, he says. The campylobacter contamination impacted the whole community.
“I’m amazed how many people are still carrying scars, both mentally and physically from that event.
“That was a significant event, even on a world scale. We gave eight and a half thousand people campylobacter, and you have to ask how did we do that? How did the system do that?
“For so many people it was a huge breach of trust; their whole trust in the system, from the Ministry of Health right through to the District Council, right through to their contractors, that just got blown.”
Everyone thought they would get safe, clean water when they turned on the tap – and they didn’t.
One of the things that could make New Zealand’s water safer is what is called “tap testing” – taking samples of water from the end-user part of the system.
It’s something that happens overseas, but isn’t done here, Bayfield says.
“It’s about making sure nothing had changed from the treatment works through the reticulation network to your house.”
Technology at last
Here’s a unpleasant thought. We all know pipes get leaks. But I’d never thought much about the fact that if drinking water can leak out of a cracked pipe, other stuff can leak in. Potentially nasty stuff. But you might not know.
“You’ve got to test all the way through a system – enough to be sure, but not over the top. I don’t think that as a whole in New Zealand we haven’t agreed what is a comprehensive set of tests to be run on water? And also on the network performance? Like what’s the age of your pipes? How much is leaking out? What’s leaking in?”
Remember the guy at the beginning of this article, Gordon Reynolds. The local body project engineer frustrated at how difficult it so often was to get councils to invest in technology for investigating the condition of pipelines?
How they preferred to buy visible things – swings or park furniture?
That’s going to change too, Bayfield says. Because it has to. Until water suppliers know what shape their pipes are in, they can’t possibly make plans to improve the performance of their networks.
One of many shocking things in the recently-released Water NZ National Performance Review is not just the number of councils which assess 20 percent or more of their pipes as being in “poor or very poor condition”, it’s the number of councils which don’t actually know what condition many of their pipes are in.
“You can’t fix what you can’t see. The sooner we start gathering the information that tells us all what shape our networks are in, the sooner people will be able to work out which bit of pipe is going to collapse first, and how to prioritise where they invest.
The equipment to do that already exists.
“The people that operate those water networks are going to welcome our requirement that for the first time ever, everyone measures their network performance. Because they are going to be able to buy that piece of laser equipment or that probe, or that robot thing that they wanted to buy for ages, but nobody will give them the go-ahead to buy.
“Or at last you get to hire a company who can come in and do the underground radar, or the ultrasound, or put a probe down your pipe, whatever it might be or the ultrasound, and that helps you predict what bits of your network are most at risk.
“I’ve met engineers who talk about working for 20 years in a district and never feeling they have been able to get the information they needed to put in front of council to justify the investment in the network.
“And now the council will have to say yes.”