New questions, in part highlighted by the Nelson floods, have emerged over the Government’s proposed Three Waters legislation.
Councils are asking how the new water entities will relate to environmental issues like floods and also how the entities will relate to the host of other pieces of legislation the Government has in train that could impact water and local Government.
The focus on the floods and Three Waters at the Select Committee considering the Bill had the effect of overshadowing the political protests against the legislation from the right-wing Taxpayers’ Union.
However, what is clearly emerging is a coherent case for something needing to be done about water in New Zealand.
That was put to the Committee on Wednesday by Water NZ CEO Gillian Blythe, who quoted then-Parliamentary Environment Commissioner for the Environment, Morgan Williams, who in 2000 said:: “I believe industry and community evidence indicates that the model has now reached the end of its design life.
“Further incremental tinkering with the current system without going back to the first principles of community water and wastewater needs relevant to the 21st century will simply mean the necessary changes will be hard to achieve and more costly at some point in the future.”
That view was endorsed by Garry Macdonald, the Water Market Leader from Beca, the country’s largest engineering consultancy.
He said Beca believed a structural change was needed to achieve the standards that were expected from the three waters sector.
“This will be of benefit to all New Zealanders present and future, and we will greatly improve our fresh ground and marine water environment over time as we face growth, climate change, and an expectation of higher levels of service in the future sector,” he said.
Macdonald said that since Williams’ comments, there had been many government departments and industry and organization reports which had investigated the current model of the state of our land and water environment.
“We have participated or contributed our own hands-on experience when consulting to councils across New Zealand on the history of water systems and assets reaffirms many of these report findings.,” he said.
“These reports and our own observations appear to confirm the PCE’s conclusions over 20 years ago.”
He said what was needed was three outcomes.
” Firstly, a need to improve delivery and management and a consistent manner across the country to achieve higher levels of service for all.
“Secondly, a need for significant reinvestment, as well as new investment in the three water systems to prepare us for future challenges.
“And thirdly, a need for an outcomes-focused service delivery model, which is both resilient and sustainable.”
The chair of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and chair of Local Government New Zealand’s regional and unitary councils’ group, Te Uru Kahika, Doug Leeder, in contrast to a number of Councils, said his group supported the legislation up to a point.
He was concerned about the interface between the regional councils and territorial authorities and the proposed water entities, particularly with respect to stormwater and flood protection.
“In our view, the regional sector councils are best placed to undertake the holistic catchment management planning,” he said.
Michael McCartney, Regional Chief Executive Officers Group Convenor for Te Uru Kahika, said the biggest issue for the regional councils and unitary councils was the catchment management role and specifically around flood management and stormwater management.
“It’s a really critical one, and we’re seeing it playing out dramatically across the country under a climate change scenario,” he said.
“And we think there needs to be that work and consideration as to how those two activities interface, given our total catchment focus and the linkage to stormwater management.”
Local Government New Zealand CEO Suzanne Freeman-Greene also raised questions about stormwater and floods.
“As the interface with things like civil and emergency management, we look what’s happening in Nelson and Tasman currently, and the work of councils with the water services is actually really vital in that,” she said.
“Our submission is really clear that how we deliver three Waters services must change to serve our communities into the future, and the sector agrees that change is urgently needed.”
Central Hawkes Bay Mayor Alex Walker, appearing for Local Government New Zealand, continued that theme.
“We are acutely aware of inheriting, aging, substandard assets, ill-prepared for climate change, including extreme weather, like what we’ve seen in Nelson and elsewhere in recent weeks,” she said.
“We know these events will only increase in unpredictability and in severity.
“So it’s no longer a question of if we need to be prepared; it’s that we must be prepared.
“Three water has seen system failure over many decades, and that’s across the spectrum from the failure of the regulator to inappropriate funding mechanisms in simply lack of political appetite.
“We urgently need a system that guarantees consistent, apolitical management of inter-generational decisions with water services, infrastructure and service delivery.”
Walker pointed to the heated and often bitter politics that have bedevilled the three waters debate.
“Local Government New Zealand has been part of this reform journey from the beginning even when it’s gotten really tough,” she said.
“Both local and central Government have been talking about the necessary change in this area for decades.
“It’s time to front up and change some things and deliver for our communities who ultimately we are both accountable to.”
But Walker and Local Government New Zealand do not speak for all Councils.
Opotiki Mayor Lyn Risterer, whose Council is a member of the Communities 4 Democracy group that opposes the Three Waters reforms told the Committee that her Council thought the proposal’s estimates of investment needed in three waters in her region were a joke.
And she broached the delicate topic of co-governance.
“One of the main concerns is lack of voice in Entity B which would be 22 councils and 78 iwi,” she said.
“We are losing in the local out of local voice and government with the loss of our assets.
“Our Iwi partners o not support other iwi setting the strategic direction of how a water entity would operate within our whenua.
“It is culturally insensitive to suggest otherwise.”
Riesterer also said the proposal would have a big impact on the Opotiki District Council’s staff.
“The impact on our staff would be colossal with the loss of water assets to Entity B,” she said.
“Eighty per cent of our staff work across numerous functions within our organization.
“The proposal does not recognize the total gutting effect this would have on all our workforce.
“The unintended consequences have not been fully researched.”
But if Councils like Opotiki have come to the Committee with real issues, the noisiest opponents of Three Waters, the right-wing Taxpayers’ Union, preferred to talk politics.
Its Executive Director Jordan Williams said the groups had collected 65,000 submissions opposed to the proposal.
Williams suggested that 8500 of these could have been heard in person – a process which would have taken somewhere near 18 months given usual Select Committee sitting times and days.
“There were games played by Madam Chair or this Committee in relation to not accepting email submissions, forcing us to print and deliver these 65,000 submissions,” he said.
“But the incredible arrogance we have seen to be notified by officials that those submissions have not even been read.”
He said he offered to work with the Select Committee on the verbal submissions.
“That hasn’t been followed up,” he said.
“The only follow-up we had was at a three or 4:00 on a Thursday.
“We were asked to select ten people to present at 9 a.m. the next day.”
In a brief segment in which he addressed the legislation, Williams said the claims about ownership had been dishonest.
He then suggested that dishonesty could be criminal.
“There is perhaps some liability, criminal liability on these claims being repeated by Local Government New Zealand and those in professional engagements on the ministerial working group.”
But the real issues that are being raised about the legislation; about how it will relate to the freshwater reforms; to the Resource Management Act reforms, and potentially the proposed Climate Change Adaptation Bill, which have been underlined by the recent extreme weather events, are likely to be where the Committee will turn its focus larger than to the simple-slogan protests of the Taxpayers’ Union.