Speech to the Stormwater Conference

  • Hon Nanaia Mahuta
Local Government

Thank you for the invitation to deliver the keynote address to this year’s Stormwater conference.

I like you had planned to be in Tauranga but we are taking the opportunity that online platforms create due to the uncertainties we are currently facing with Covid-19 and which prevent us meeting in person.

Let me first acknowledge Water New Zealand and the event sponsors who have made it possible for us to be here today.

I’d also like to acknowledge and welcome Gillian Blythe as the new Chief Executive of Water New Zealand. I congratulate you on your appointment and look forward to working with you.

This year has seen unprecedented challenges for the country, for central government, for local government, for all our communities.

As we’ve seen with the recent outbreaks of community transmission, COVID-19 has and will continue to have implications for our health, economy, and wellbeing.

Looking at the big picture – the Government has faced this Pandemic without a playbook but we have a plan to get us through this current resurgence and that plan has 5 key planks.

We are investing in people – The PM has made it very clear that the best economic response is a health response. As we continue to invest in the health system and a community response we remain focussed on workforce resilience and continue to invest in skills training in sectors and industries that position our people to be a part of the economic recovery.

Our Second and third planks are jobs and infrastructure. We are committed to job creation and a productive economy where the Government can be a significant enabler of employment. We are changing gear to give greater certainty in how the Government will leverage its balance sheet to invest in infrastructure that will support regional and local economies.

We have earmarked $3 billion for ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects. We established the Infrastructure Reference Group to work with local councils and businesses to identify a pipeline of projects to support the economy during the COVID-19 rebuild.

Cabinet then decided the key sectors and regional breakdown of funds with more than 150 projects worth $2.6 billion being approved in principal. I will speak in more detail on water infrastructure later.

We are also looking to the future. We are spending $1.3 billion on a range of Environment projects from enhancing biodiversity to pest control.

Fourthly we are backing small business. We are mindful that as a small country the resilience of our local economies rely on the sustainability of the SME sector from local tradespeople, to emerging new business in the digital tech community, to tourism operators and those in professional services, food and hospitality.We are working alongside SMEs to support the critical issues of sustainable viability in this new context.  The wage subsidy scheme, various tax changes the BF6 scheme via the Regional Business Partnership as well as targeted support the Tourism industry are designed to help the SME sector.

Fifthly we are positioning ourselves globally for when Covid is a lesser threat we can trade in sectors where there is continued trust and confidence in what we export and the value we put on being one of the best countries to trade with. As that trust and confidence grows in line with the Covid-19 response that will see at some time in the future our borders open to enable trade and international education resume.

The case for change

I believe that the resilience of our waters infrastructure network is something that we can no longer ignore.

We are faced with a three waters system that is under pressure across New Zealand, suffering from historic underinvestment, aging infrastructure, and all too common failure.

Wherever we live, every New Zealander in their community should expect to turn on the tap and drink the water and not worry that they might get sick.

We all want to be able to swim in our rivers, lakes, beaches and gather kaimoana without worrying about raw sewage seeping into those waters and making us sick.

In many Māori communities there is an acute feeling of despair especially when they have a spiritual or ancestral connection to water and its life giving properties. This is the ‘mauri’ or life principle of water and provides some insight to the references of Te Mana o te Wai associated with freshwater outcomes.

We are all now familiar with the looming financial hurdles:

  • up to $575 million is needed to upgrade drinking water plants to meet standards;
  • about $3-$4 billion for wastewater plants to meet environmental standards; and
  • Several billion dollars to fix aging storm water pipes and networks.

In addition to the financial hurdles matters are compounded by an ineffective regulatory framework:

  • A framework which is not strong enough to ensure the safety and quality of our drinking water.
  • A framework which does not provide assurances that wastewater and stormwater systems are delivering outcomes that are acceptable for communities, tangata whenua and the environment.

The vision

New Zealand deserves world-class drinking water, wastewater services and a resilient approach to storm and floodwaters.

Services that not only ensure the safety of our people, but deliver:

  • better freshwater outcomes;
  • greater reliability of water network services for citizens;
  • improved resilience to climate change and natural hazards; and
  • Increased transparency and accountability while operating on a more financially sustainable footing.

As lead Minister of the Government’s Three Waters Reform Programme, I’ve been working with senior ministerial colleagues over the last three years to reform our approach to water and its associated services. It feels like the longest conversation with them and you.

But I am committed to engaging with local government, water sector stakeholders, iwi/Māori representatives and national bodies, I’m pleased to say that good progress has already been made.

Progress made – Taumata Arowai and regulatory reform

A new national water services regulator – Taumata Arowai – has been established and should be operational by mid next year to oversee and enforce a strengthened drinking water regime.

This regulator will also have a remit to oversee the environmental performance of wastewater and stormwater systems across the country.

While regional councils will remain the primary regulators of stormwater and wastewater under the Resource Management Act, Taumata Arowai will be tasked with providing oversight of the regulation and management of these networks to ensure that good environmental outcomes are being achieved.

In addition, one of Taumata Arowai’s objectives will be to give effect to Te Mana o Te Wai in undertaking its functions and duties. A Māori Advisory Group will provide advice and guidance in carrying out these roles and that perspective will be evident in the establishment Board.

I’m advised that Taumata Arowai will turn its focus to council-operated stormwater and wastewater services once it has bedded in its administration of the new drinking water requirements.

This will initially involve it pulling together a comparative view of the performance of council-operated stormwater and wastewater networks across the country.

This will provide for the development of advice and guidance on:

  • good practices in the design, operation and management of these services; and
  • Risks and issues related to performance and practice of the services.

These new stormwater and wastewater functions are designed to shine a light on the environmental impact of these systems, and the way they are regulated by regional councils.

In developing its approach, I expect Taumata Arowai to work closely with regional and local councils, sector organisations and industry professionals.

The Water Services Bill, recently introduced to Parliament, will provide Taumata Arowai with the powers it needs to administer these functions.

I encourage you to take the opportunity to have your say on the Bill’s contents when it progresses through the Select Committee stage.

Three waters infrastructure stimulus

While strengthening the regulatory framework is an essential first step to improving the three waters system, we are mindful this is also an infrastructure problem.

As you’ll be aware, many of the problematic stormwater networks and wastewater treatment plants are in small provincial towns.

For example, the Timaru District Council’s stormwater network needs an estimated $15 million upgrade if it’s to meet environmental standards and prepare the district for potentially damaging floods.

This could lead to a significant jump in this Council’s operating costs of between $500,000 and $700,000 a year, with costs ultimately borne by ratepayers.

Faced with such expenditure, councils often have little choice but to defer upgrades, and increase their infrastructure deficit – a situation that may have been exacerbated by the financial hit that some territorial authorities will have suffered through COVID-19.

This is one of the reasons this Government is allocating a
$761 million stimulus and reform fund to assist local government in upgrading critical three waters services nationally.

Of this funding, $51 million will go towards the establishment of Taumata Arowai, while $30 million will help non-council rural water suppliers meet costs in the face of the new regulatory regime for drinking water.

This investment package will kick-start much needed work to bring our drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure up to scratch, and support economic recovery and job creation.

Service delivery reform

We know, however, that there are broader challenges facing our water services that can’t be solved by funding assistance or regulatory reform alone. 

The current situation – whereby a large number of smaller water providers must fund and deliver water services and infrastructure across the country – is simply not fit for purpose.

We need a committed effort to work these challenges out together.

That’s why councils’ eligibility to access a portion of the Crown funding package is dependent on them engaging in a conversation about national water service delivery reform. 

It will be difficult, and it will take time – but I believe if we work together, we can put in place arrangements that realise significant health, environmental, economic and other benefits over the medium to long term.

As a starting point, we’d like to see the creation of larger, more financially viable water service providers, able to take advantage of cross-boundary economies of scale and communities of interest.

We have to find our way through the current political hurdles of asset ownership, cross subsidisation, efficient procurement, sustainable growth within a catchment and cost benefits to ratepayers without being drawn into council parochialism.

Our intention is for publicly-owned multi-regional models, collectively owned by member councils.

These entities would be able to deliver more affordable, efficient, reliable and resilient water services, while significantly improving the safety and quality of drinking water, and the performance of wastewater and stormwater systems.

Led by a joint Central and Local Government Three Waters Steering Committee, officials have started a significant programme of engagement with local authorities and iwi/Māori representatives.

This conversation will extend to the wider water industry and others as this three-year reform programme progresses.

As stormwater professionals and industry representatives, your input will be crucial as we begin to consider the potential scope and role of these new entities.

For example:

  • What role might the new water entities have in the management and operation of stormwater networks?
  • How could new national arrangements improve resource coordination and unlock strategic, cross-boundary opportunities for stormwater networks?
  • What organisational arrangements might best support the stormwater sector, including opportunities for industry recruitment, professional development and training?

As you network and reconnect over the next three days, I encourage you to consider these sorts of questions.

Think broadly and boldly – what would you like to see in this once in a generation transformation of water service delivery arrangements?

Urban water quality and Freshwater reforms

The three waters, of course, are closely interconnected as one holistic system – from the source to the tap and back to the receiving environment.

That’s why I’m fortunate to also be closely involved, as Associate Minister for the Environment, in the Essential Freshwater work programme, particularly as it relates to urban water.

Through this programme we have committed to:

  • stopping further degradation of our freshwater resources and making immediate improvements so water quality improves within five years; and
  • Reversing past damage to freshwater resources, waterways and ecosystems so that they are restored to a healthy state within a generation.

That’s why the Government has announced major changes to the freshwater management system.

Earlier this month, we gazetted and passed into law the new National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management 2020, National Environmental Standards for Freshwater, stock exclusion regulations, and regulations in the measurement and reporting of water takes.

These instruments use Te Mana o Te Wai as their guiding principle. This is a concept for all New Zealanders. It refers to the essential value of water, and the importance of firstly sustaining its integrity and health, before providing for essential human health needs and then for other consumption.

We all have a responsibility to uphold Te Mana o Te Wai. Freshwater quality is not just a rural issue, and urban communities must also play their part.

For urban areas, the new national direction strengthens our obligations to protect and restore our urban waterways, including by:

  • preventing loss of urban streams and wetlands; and
  • Ensuring urban development is managed in a way that considers the impact on freshwater and coastal environments.

Urban Water Working Group

We are also looking at other ways to support resilient and liveable urban environments that uphold Te Mana o Te Wai.

These are reflected in the Urban Water Principles, which were developed by the Urban Water Working Group, which has made an important contribution through its leadership in this area.

The Group recently published a set of policy and practice recommendations to promote the implementation of the Urban Water Principles, which can be found on the Ministry for the Environment’s website.

I encourage all of you to consider how you can incorporate the Group’s vision into decision-making at every level, including policy, planning and infrastructure design.

Central government is also considering how it can play a greater role in improving urban water (including stormwater) outcomes.

As a first step, I understand that Ministry for the Environment officials are preparing guidance on how local authorities can improve stormwater outcomes through policy, planning and delivering infrastructure, and consenting stormwater discharges.

This guidance is expected to be published later this year, as part of a wider package to support the implementation of the new National Policy Statement for Freshwater management.

In addition, the Ministry is scoping the development of a proposed new national environmental standard for wastewater discharges and overflows.

I understand that the Ministry will be taking a collaborative approach to developing this instrument, and officials will look to have discussions with the sector shortly.

Concluding remarks

In closing, I know this reform programme has been like a slow and unfolding conversation over the last two and half years.

But it’s too important to drop by the wayside and I’m not going to let that happen.

Matters concerning water are complex and cut across the cultural, political and policy conundrum associated with reform of this nature.

We need good considered water reform for Aotearoa New Zealand, future generations, and we need to take people with us.

It’s a necessarily long reform conversation, but if we act in a way that we consider our contribution as kaitiaki of water and also the process of reform we will reach an outcome that will secure the long-term wellbeing and resilience for all to benefit.