Three Waters reform moves forward – Expert Reaction

The Government has today confirmed it will create four publicly owned water entities to manage New Zealand’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater.

Most of the country’s water infrastructure is currently overseen by local councils. It is estimated $185 billion is needed to fix, upgrade and maintain New Zealand’s water services over the next 30 years.

The SMC asked experts about today’s announcement.

Dr Lokesh Padhye, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Auckland, comments:

“My views haven’t changed since I made my earlier comments related to the initial announcement. I understand the opposition to these reforms, as change always triggers fears about the future due to uncertainties. However, as the Hon Nanaia Mahuta has pointed out, this change cannot wait any longer. The structure of the four publicly owned water entities and their operation philosophies will need to be carefully planned, but, as a water quality scientist, I view these reforms as ‘a must have’ for the New Zealand water sector.

“The existing fragmented structure of 67 council-owned and managed water service providers is disadvantageous to infrastructure upgrades and creating forward-looking water management practices nationally. For example, New Zealand is not considered a global leader in water treatment and management practices. Consolidating water entities through careful planning, as mentioned above, will enable better water quality management to meet today’s needs and tomorrow’s demands to secure our nation’s water future.”

No conflict of interest.

Troy Baisden, Principal Investigator in Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence on Complex Systems, Professor (Environmental Sciences) at the University of Waikato, Honorary Prof, School of Environment, University of Auckland, Affiliate at Motu Research, comments:

“Minister Nanaia Mahuta began her announcement of the Three Waters Reform by emphasising the recreational and amenity value of our water and our beaches. When the Three Waters – drinking, storm and wastewater – are managed well, our rivers, lakes, and beaches are safe. Yet the Three Waters do impact and draw from the freshwater resources that she placed in the minds and hearts of those listening. Both pathogens and nutrients cause contamination of freshwater and the need for new investment to better protect drinking water.

“It’s important to remember the reforms are largely a response to the thousands sickened by contaminated water in Havelock North, and also to continuing pressure on local government to fund infrastructure at or beyond their means so that river mouths and harbours are safe for wading and swimming. Inquiries into the Havelock North incident ultimately concluded that New Zealand needed to better observe international principles for drinking water safety.

“The reforms open up the possibility that a principles-based approach can be taken to managing drinking, storm and wastewater – along with two linked challenges. The first is freshwater reform across our entire rural landscapes, recognising the embodied value of these landscapes in the reputation of our exports and tourism. The second, and most timely given the bipartisan announcement on urban densification, is the need for investment in Three Waters infrastructure to affordably support the nation’s future quality of life.

“Ultimately, the announcement reflects that the ability to stabilise the investment and decisions required through local government processes has proven contentious. The interactions of central and local government under the Resource Management Act and other processes over the past 30 years have left infrastructure funding deficits, and a lack of clear principles to guide a stable way forward. Interactions across levels of government are complex, and have been struggling to accommodate the benefits expected from improving Māori engagement to give effect to Te Tiriti around water issues. Today’s announcement is a change in course toward more integrated and likely more principled solutions. This doesn’t guarantee success but provides new ways forward that could enable better outcomes, in both economic and environmental terms.”

Conflict of interest statement: “No conflict of interest beyond government research funding sources.”