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News that $761 million of Government money will be poured into the nation’s ailing water services may sound impressive, but that amount is a drop in the bucket.
Estimates of what will be required to sort out the drinking, waste and storm water infrastructure throughout the country run into billions of dollars. Civil Contractors New Zealand estimates around $17 billion is needed in the next decade.
Just upgrading water treatment plants is expected to cost up to $574 million.
Dramatically, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and minister for local government Nanaia Mahuta made the announcement about the $761 million kickstart for local government upgrades at the site of the infamous water bore found to be responsible for the fatal 2016 Havelock North campylobacter outbreak.
That scandal was described by epidemiologist and public health advocate Prof Sir David Skegg as unprecedented in a developed country.
About 5500 people were struck down by the illness, 45 hospitalised, at least three people died and many people in Havelock North now have arthritis. All caused by an epidemic that should never have occurred, Prof Skegg says.
Making the funding announcement, Ms Ardern said at least 34,000 New Zealanders become ill from drinking tap water every year and many communities around the country cannot drink their water without boiling it first.
Cash-strapped local councils have struggled in many instances to properly fund their water services. To qualify for the Governments largesse, councils will have to sign up to the first stage of the wider water reform plan known as the Three Waters Reform Programme.
Participating at this tranche one stage will involve councils sharing detailed data related to their infrastructure and, once more detailed policy work has been completed, they would then be required to decide whether to take part in the binding second and third tranches of the programme.
Participation is voluntary, although smaller councils may feel they have little choice because of their financial position.
If councils choose to provide their own services and not to take part in the reform programme involving a public multi-region model, the details of which are yet to be determined, they will still have to meet public health and environmental standards.
The funding announcement has been generally well received, although Civil Contractors New Zealand would like everything to speed up. Chief executive Peter Silcock says contractors have more than 100 shovel-ready projects in the pipeline the government is not willing to announce just yet.
He is critical of local authorities which worked based on system failure rather than planned maintenance, with contractors often hired to install patches on top of patches.
Now the government has extended this support, he says it is time for local government to step up and not use the funding as an excuse to reduce their own share of funding and carry on with the same old approach.
We do not yet know how many water services we may end up with, although the government has indicated its preference for a small number of entities, each containing at least one large urban centre. They would be in shared ownership of the local authorities.
In Otago and Southland, councils have already shown enthusiasm for investigating how they might work together to provide water services.
A steering committee , under the Department of Internal Affairs, with membership from central and local government has been set up to provide oversight and guidance for the national reform process.
Quite what it all might mean to the ratepayer is hard to tell at this stage. For instance, a Question and Answer section on the Internal Affairs Department website, responding to the question of how ratepayers will be charged for water under the model says We are looking to minimise the change to consumers.
We look forward both to more clarity in our water, and the information provided about it as the reforms progress.