Regulator overreacted to Queenstown crypto outbreak - Lewers

Te Whatu Ora believes the cause of the outbreak was most likely from human faecal matter in the...
Te Whatu Ora believes the cause of the outbreak was most likely from human faecal matter in the town's water supply, Lake Wakatipu, however, the mayor is unconvinced. Photo: RNZ

Queenstown's mayor believes the water regulator overstepped the mark during the resort town's cryptosporidium outbreak, unnecessarily impacting some communities.

Residents and businesses in and around the town's centre have been required to boil their water since the middle of September.

Water regulator Taumata Arowai has issued a compliance order to add protozoa protections to its Two Mile water supply, which the council has been working to meet.

The council has installed temporary UV water treatment equipment at its Two Mile water supply, and said it needed a green light from Taumata Arowai before the notice could be lifted.

People using the Kelvin Heights plant supply have been able to drink from the tap since early October.

Mayor Glyn Lewers told Nine to Noon he believed the area shouldn't have been on the boil water notice in the first place as their supply had a UV filter already in place.

"It is my view that was a compliant system so we had, I think, a week where the boil water notice was affecting communities where I don't think it was necessary," Lewers said.

Taumata Arowai's head of regulatory Steve Taylor said there were sufficient concerns about the operation of this treatment plant and the mixing of the two supply distribution zones to warrant the boil water notice as well as illness in both zones.

The notice also gave them time to assess the protozoa barrier in place.

Taumata Arowai reviewed the Queenstown's drinking water safety plan shortly before the outbreak, identifying issues with the Two Mile water treatment plant including inadequate management of the protozoa risks, and met with the council to discuss them.

After the outbreak, the regulator asked for the council to demonstrate the Kelvin Heights plant was both in operation properly and properly isolated from the Two Mile distribution zone, he said.

That was done on October 4, with the boil water notice lifting the following day.

Lewers did not believe the regulator had the necessary water industry experience, but said they had worked well together.

"If you have a look at the actual regulation officers, I think we could only talk to one person within the organisation that actually had water industry experience.

"So from my perspective, that's a little bit concerning."

He acknowledged that it was difficult to find people with the right skills and experience.

Glyn Lewers is concerned about the number of regulation officers the council is dealing with who...
Glyn Lewers is concerned about the number of regulation officers the council is dealing with who have water experience. Photo: RNZ

Taylor said he was confident the regulator's staff had the technical capability required to do their jobs.

"Throughout the Queenstown response, we have ensured there is a single contact for key issues.

"Behind the scenes, we had a broad range of people involved with considerable expertise, including an international panel of experts."

The regulator has been working closed with the council as they went through the compliance order and was currently analysing information it received from the council on Wednesday afternoon, Taylor said.

"QLDC will lift the boil water notice once they have provided assurance that the water they are providing their community is safe."

In October, Te Whatu Ora confirmed the cause of the outbreak was most likely from human faecal matter being captured in the town's water supply, Lake Wakatipu.

However, Lewers remained unconvinced the cause of the gastro outbreak was in the water.

Along with installing the temporary UV filter at its Two Mile water supply, the council was also spending more than $10 million to make the district's water treatment plants compliant.

This included a more permanent solution for the Two Mile plant that was being made overseas with the temporary option being relocated to a different treatment plant once that was ready.

It was necessary to spend the money regardless of his views, he said.

"We are fulfilling a compliance order from the regulator. That's what we're doing and, again, if we want the boil water notice lifted, that's what we have to do and we have done it."

He said he got feedback from Te Whatu Ora that it was not confident it would identify a definitive source even with more staff and resources to investigate.

While it has been frustrating, he was pleased that the boil water notice should soon be lifted.