Speech for Environmental Defence Society workshop

  • Hon Nanaia Mahuta
Local Government


  • Thank you for the invitation to attend your water reform pre-conference workshop this afternoon.
  • In the previous session, you heard about and discussed the ongoing reforms in the freshwater space, including the Government’s Essential Freshwater programme.
  • As you would have heard, Essential Freshwater is the result of this Government’s clear mandate to stop the degradation of our waterways, and to restore them to a healthy state. Combined with our comprehensive review of the Resource Management Act, this Government is committed to better environmental outcomes for Aotearoa/New Zealand.
  • As both Minister of Local Government and Associate Minister for the Environment, I have a keen interest in improving water quality and biodiversity – particularly in urban environments – and in upholding Te Mana o Te Wai – the health of the water, the health of the environment, and the health of the people.
  • As you’re aware, the Essential Freshwater reforms are not happening in isolation, but are proceeding in tandem with the Three Waters Review, which is the focus of this session and my discussion with you this afternoon.

Link to freshwater reforms and case for change

  • I want to acknowledge that from a Māori world view – water is water , and there are clear overlaps between both programmes of work led by my colleague David Parker and myself.
  • As the lead Minister for the Three Waters Review, I’m well aware of the importance of a joined up and holistic approach to these reforms, cognisant that whatever we do in one area will impact on other parts of the environment.
  • That’s why officials and Ministers are working closely together on both pieces of work.
  • I also accept that, in different circumstances, we’d have one programme of water reform, and there would be no need for the two separate sessions we’re having this afternoon.
  • However, concerns about the safety of our drinking water supplies – most notably the outbreak of gastroenteritis in Havelock North in 2016 – necessitated the establishment of the Three Waters Review.
  • The Havelock North Inquiry found that more than 5000 people became ill as a result of this incident, with four associated deaths. Even putting this event to one side, around 34,000 people across New Zealand become ill from their drinking water every year, and many thousands must boil their water to drink it safely.
  • For a developed country in the 21st century, this is shocking and untenable – the safety of drinking water supply to our communities is non-negotiable. That’s why, as a cross-government priority project, the Three Waters Review has been proceeding on a more urgent timeframe than the wider freshwater reforms.
  • Although drinking water is the priority, the challenges stretch past drinking water.
  • You’ll all be aware of the rate of wastewater discharge non-compliance, and the numerous examples of waste and stormwater treatment failures. These incidents are all too common across the country.
  • Wherever they live, New Zealanders want to be able to swim in our lakes, rivers and the sea, or collect kai moana, without fear of getting sick from poorly treated or overflowing wastewater.
  • The status quo is simply not meeting these expectations, nor is it protecting our invaluable clean, green image.
  • We want to protect our freshwater and marine environments. One way of doing that is to lift the environmental performance of our waste and stormwater systems.
  • Just as our environment is a holistic system, we need to address the challenges with our three waters system in an holistic way –also from source to tap and back again.

Three waters regulatory reforms

  • The existing legislation governing our three waters system is characterised by weak or fragmented regulation, and a lack of enforcement. Addressing these immediate regulatory deficiencies has been the priority of the Three Waters Review.
  • This Government has approved a suite of regulatory reforms to help ensure safe drinking water and deliver improved environmental outcomes.
  • We’re introducing a new regulatory framework for drinking water, including:
    • an extension of the regulations to all drinking water suppliers, except individual household self-suppliers;
    • a multi-barrier approach to drinking water safety, including mandatory disinfection of water supplies, with exemptions only in limited circumstances;
    • stronger obligations on water suppliers and local authorities to manage risks to sources of drinking water; and
    • Strengthened compliance, monitoring and enforcement of drinking water regulation.
  • While regional councils will remain the primary regulators for the environment, there will be stronger central stewardship of wastewater and stormwater regulation, including:
    • requirements for wastewater and stormwater operators to report annually on a set of national environmental performance measures;
    • national good practice guidelines for the design and management of waste and stormwater networks; and
    • monitoring of emerging contaminants in wastewater and stormwater, and coordinating national responses where necessary.
  • We’re also proposing a new national environmental standard for the treatment and management of wastewater discharges and overflows.
  • This standard may allow regional councils to set more stringent consent conditions, where needed, to meet national or regional objectives for fresh and coastal waters. It is also expected to support community and tangata whenua values for downstream waterbodies.  
  • We’re planning to provide more information on this proposed new standard as part of the Essential Freshwater programme.
  • These environmental measures reflect our clear mandate to deliver greater oversight, guidance and stewardship in the management of waste and stormwater, and improved environmental performance of municipal systems.

Central regulator

  • The Government has also announced the establishment of a dedicated water services regulator to help ensure safe drinking water, underpin community wellbeing, and enhance our country’s clean-green image.
  • The new water regulator will have a range of responsibilities and functions, including:
    • sector leadership;
    • compliance, monitoring and enforcement of drinking water;
    • capability building;
    • information, advice and education; and
    • performance reporting.
  • The details of the institutional form and scope of the regulator – including whether to include regulation of all three waters within a single regulator, or separate entities – will be the subject of further Cabinet consideration in September.
  • Although the details are still being worked through, I expect the regulator to play a key role in sector leadership, including working with organisations such as EDS to ensure the three waters regulatory system is supporting good environmental outcomes.
  • I also expect the regulator to provide guidance and support for water managers and engineers working across all three waters to support compliance with new regulations.

Timeframes and transitional arrangements

  • The majority of these reforms – including the new water regulator – will require legislation to implement.
  • We’re aiming to introduce a Water Services Bill by the end of the year, with possible enactment by mid-2020.
  • It’s acknowledged that it may be challenging for some drinking water suppliers – particularly some smaller councils and community suppliers – to comply with their new obligations.
  • This will be managed by allowing for assistance and time to achieve compliance. This includes a proposed five-year transition period to allow smaller suppliers to come up to speed with the new requirements.

Addressing funding and capability issues

  • While we’re addressing the immediate regulatory issues, it’s clear there are wider affordability and capability challenges facing the sector.
  • This is highlighted by the historic underinvestment in our water infrastructure. For example:
    • Indicative research indicates that it could cost between $300 and $570 million to upgrade drinking water treatment plants to comply with drinking water standards.
    • In addition, further yet-to-be-completed research shows an indicative cost of between $3 billion to $4 billion to upgrade wastewater treatment systems over the coming years.
  • The challenge we face is that some of our smaller councils and communities, and many non-council drinking water suppliers, such as marae, are not well-positioned to meet these upgrade costs. 
  • We need to ensure communities can receive safe, reliable, culturally-acceptable three waters services in an affordable way.
  • Throughout 2019 and into 2020, my officials will be having conversations with local government, water industry experts, iwi/Māori and others about options to improve three waters service delivery and funding arrangements.
  • This may include thinking differently about how these services are delivered and paid for, including options for sharing costs across communities, or a nationwide fund.
  • Cabinet will consider further advice on these matters at the end of the year.
  • Regardless of what options are considered, the continued public ownership of existing three waters assets will be a bottom line.

Support for voluntary initiatives 

  • At the same time, we’re looking at ways to support councils and regions that are investigating collaborative initiatives to improve their water service delivery, including shared services across or within regions.
  • It’s encouraging to see such initiatives already in progress, including:
    • a recent agreement for Watercare to provide water services for the Waikato district;
    • territorial authorities in the Waikato region developing a project plan for collaboration on three waters activities;
    • South Wairarapa District Council joining with Wellington Water;
    • Hawke’s Bay councils undertaking a Three Waters review; and
    • Otago, Canterbury and West Coast councils taking a fresh look at how they manage three waters services for their regions.

Closing remarks

  • With these new regulatory measures I’ve outlined, we aim to ensure that New Zealanders can turn on the household tap and drink the water without fear of getting sick.
  • At the same time, this system, from the source to tap and back again, must deliver improved outcomes for water quality, for our aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity, and for our people.
  • I look forward to continued discussion and feedback on these issues.
    Tena Koutou Katoa.