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Water NZ chief calls for national water regulator

New Zealand needs a new independent water regulator with the power and resources to set standards and enforce them, Water NZ Chief Executive John Pfahlert said.

Speaking ahead of his presentation on water reform at Ozwater’19 next week, Pfahlert said a regulator responsible for all three waters (drinking water, wastewater and stormwater) would be ideal, but that drinking water should be the first priority.

“The Ministry of Health, which oversees the implementation of drinking water standards, hasn’t had a prosecution in 20 years,” Pfahlert said.

“In an environment like that, there’s no incentive for people to comply, which is why we’ve got such a poor track record of drinking water contamination events.

“The regulatory functions should be taken away from the Ministry of Health as it has clearly demonstrated it is unable or unwilling to regulate drinking water delivery effectively.”

One of the most notable contamination events in recent years was the 2016 Havelock North campylobacter outbreak, in which four people died and 5000 fell ill in a small town on NZ’s North Island.

A government inquiry into the outbreak warned that nearly 800,000 New Zealanders, or 20% of the serviced population, were drinking water that was “not demonstrably safe”.

“Of these, 92,000 are at risk of bacterial infection, 681,000 of protozoal infection, and 59,000 at risk from the long-term effects of exposure to chemicals,” the report stated.

Regulatory reform likely

Recognising the problems went beyond the Havelock North incident, the NZ Government launched a broader look at water regulation and supply across the country in mid-2017.

The resulting Three Waters Review is still ongoing but initial findings have raised questions about the effectiveness of current regulation and the sustainability of water service providers.

It has highlighted the need for regulatory reform, with an update from Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Health Minister David Clark in November 2018 revealing an overhaul of water regulation would be part of the Three Waters Review.

“The immediate priority for the review is the detailed policy work on the overarching shape and form of regulatory arrangements for drinking water and wastewater,” the update said.

“The Ministers of Local Government, Health, and the Environment intend to take detailed proposals on this to Cabinet in June 2019.”

For Pfahlert, this is a step in the right direction, although he recognises change won’t happen overnight.

“As an industry body, for the past 10 to 15 years we have been saying there are some systemic issues with the way water is managed in this country,” Pfahlert said.

“We need regulatory reform and structural reform if we’re going to deliver changes.

“It’s about making sure customers get a quality drinking water product they feel safe to drink at an affordable price.

“Those have to be the benchmarks against which we evaluate any new system in our view.”

Hear more from John Pfahlert at Ozwater’19 in Melbourne from 7-9 May. To view the program and to register, click here.