Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta heads the reform process

The Government has now committed to what will end up being the most radical upheaval of local Government since the Auckland city merger.

This time around it won’t be the Councils themselves that merge but rather their water facilities.

But these reforms are only the beginning; Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta says they will lead to a debate about what rights Maori have to water and how those rights would work in practice.

So far proposals for a new freshwater structure has been unveiled with a promise of $761 million of Government funding to get the process going.

However within hours of that being announced at a rather too obvious photo opportunity alongside the Havelock North bore that led to the water crisis there of 2016  and possibly four deaths,  the parochialism that bedevils local body politics was making itself heard.

Timaru Mayor Nigel Bowen said that while he was  Mayor of the Timaru District “I certainly won’t be supporting moving control to a Canterbury-wide or larger organisation.

“Without local control of our water assets, smaller areas carry the risk of becoming infrastructure backwaters with the focus and resource going to meet the demands of the main centres.”

What Timaru may not realise is that the freshwater plan is only the start; that the much more difficult and expensive process of cleaning up wastewater and stormwater will be next on the agenda and that eventually, that same agenda will have to deal with Maori claims to water.

The idea that a small council like Timaru could cope with the financial demands and complexities of all this is fanciful.

Mahuta, rejects his argument.

“Timaru can make its own decision; however, I know that the great majority of the sector has received the announcement very warmly,” she told POLITIK.

Local Government actually has little choice; if they want to access the Government funding, they will need to be prepared to have their water services (freshwater, wastewater and stormwater) run by an independent entity which will be an aggregation of a number of the current services being run by a number of neighbouring Councils.

It’s not local body amalgamation, but it is an amalgamation of the water services of Councils.

At one point two years ago, officials from the Department of Internal Affairs, which somewhat oddly runs water, suggested we could go to five “Super 15” water entities.

Mahuta stresses that aggregation is about designing an entity which will be big enough to find the finance that will be needed for the upgrades as the Councils move through the three waters.

The challenge is enormous.

Officials say that the renewal of the infrastructure is falling far behind.

They are currently putting the cost at $6  – $7 billion.

About half of all our wastewater treatment plants will need upgrading in the next ten years, and that could cost $4 billion;  the total bill for freshwater is expected to be $500 million coast but treatment plants and freshwater represent only about 20 per cent of the three waters infrastructure.

The other 80 per cent is in the pipes.

There is no estimate yet on how much they will cost to fix.

What we should do in trying to consider options is to look to comparative examples, overseas to see what we can learn from how other jurisdictions have approached this,” Mahuta said.

“And by and large, many have reaped the benefit of creating scale in the water services delivery area.

The costs are so big that the Minister is convinced that only much larger water entities will be able to cope.

“The cost in relation to wastewater is significant and I’ve proposed a small number of multi-regional entities which could deliver a scale to be able to potentially finance the level of investment that is required,” she said.

But finding the money and building the infrastructure will be only part of the challenge.

Only yesterday, the co-leader of the Maori party, John Tamihere called for an “open, honest” conversation about water.

“Who owns the water?” he asked.

“ It’s a very simple question with a very simple answer.

“Māori own the water because our customary native title has never been extinguished.”

Submissions from various iwi and Maori groups to Parliament’s Environment Committee on the Resource Management Amendment Bill which was recently passed by Parliament all called for the implementation of a recommendation of the Waitangi Tribunal that freshwater be co-managed by iwi and local Government.

The Waikato River Authority, which was set up as part of the Tainui settlement, is considered a model that could be more widely used.

Maori co-management is also closely linked to water allocation – an issue that successive Government have ducked ruling on.

Mahuta is also Minister of Maori Development, and she believes that once we get our water cleaned up, then we can go onto talk about the kind of issues that Tamihere is raising.

I want to address the issues around water quality which is something that all New Zealanders can agree that that’s an important focus,” she said.

“The next conversation, is around the issue of allocation and, everybody’s got to be in front of one another as they have those particular conversations ahead.

I think the important thing is that  New Zealanders ready themselves for the kind of conversation that would see different ways of working to ensure the health of all of our catchments as well as trying to ensure that the utilisation of water can happen in an efficient manner and underpin and support the growth of a region. 

“In my mind, if those interests are all around the table having a really constructive conversation, it’s an opportunity for us to get to a very different place because we are recognising that these aren’t competing interests, but they are interests that put the health of the river first and foremost while we work through the rest of the challenge.”

Meanwhile, a joint sector steering committee involving mayors, chief executives, the Department of Internal Affairs and Treasury to work through the reform process and the policy and commercial design work for the new entities on an opt-in basis.

But Councils, like possibly Timaru, that don’t want to opt-in might find themselves facing huge technical challenges and big bill as they try to meet the standards that will be required and then when they have done that they will have to try and reach an agreement with local iwi on co-management.

The debate over the whole three waters issue has hardly even begun.

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