The water challenge

Drinking water, and in particular the Havelock North Inquiry, was a key focus for the water sector in 2017. John Pfahlert, chief executive, Water New Zealand. 

THE LONG AWAITED second stage of the government inquiry into the Havelock North Drinking Water contamination was released in December and the government is signalling that we are likely to see major reform in the sector.

This is something that we at Water New Zealand are welcoming and we are strongly urging the government not to delay. Many of our submissions to the inquiry have been reflected in the 51 recommendations. It is clear that unless there are significant changes to the way drinking water is regulated, there is a serious risk of another contamination outbreak on the scale of Havelock North.

While many councils do a good job providing safe drinking water, the Inquiry clearly identified systemic problems in the regulation and supply of safe drinking water.

Its report provides a blue print for the government to move forward to ensure that our drinking water meets the needs of what New Zealanders and visitors should expect from a modern 21st century developed world water supply.

In particular, we support the Inquiry recommendation that the government create an establishment unit to oversee the creation of a new drinking water regulator and that all public water supplies have mandatory treatment of drinking water, including the use of a residual disinfectant.

The report accurately identified the lack of competence and training in the sector – something that the industry has known about for some time. It has called for a mandatory training and qualification regime to be established for all operators, supervisors and managers working in the sector. This is an initiative Water New Zealand is already acting on. See more on this further down.

The Inquiry included recommendations in relation to the aggregation of water suppliers. Given that it has observed this would lead to improved compliance, competence and accountability, Water New Zealand is urging the government to urgently investigate this recommendation.

The preparation of agreed industry submissions and attendance at the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry in Hastings occupied a great deal of both staff and board time at Water New Zealand.

Reflecting the need to ensure industry is well informed about what’s expected of it post the Inquiry reporting, Water New Zealand has recruited additional expertise in water quality, and will be providing a more coherent industry advisory service around water treatment and water safety plan development starting in 2018.

The focus on treating ratepayers as customers has been an increasing focus in 2017. After all, many water customers are not ratepayers. It was a subject that Raveen Jaduram from Watercare addressed at our Annual Conference in Hamilton, noting that the customer should be at the heart of all that water suppliers do.

As part of that focus, Water New Zealand undertook a major public opinion survey of attitudes towards water. The report, which was presented at the conference, is really the start of a work plan for Water New Zealand in seeking to understand what customers really want from the industry.

For example, the survey suggests 60 percent of the rate-paying public want to be charged directly for the water they use, rather than having water service charges buried in their rates bill. That result was a surprise, as water metering always seems to be a focal point for opposition within communities.

Industry training has been a big emphasis in 2017. The board of Water New Zealand has asked staff to take a greater leadership role in the organisation around industry training. New qualifications will start to be delivered in 2018, and there is a strong industry desire to modernise the traditional block courses offered to the sector towards a world of blended learning. This involves the ability to do distance/e-learning and more on-job training. It will require Water New Zealand to be more directly involved with Connexis going forward, and in the arrangement of training delivery.

The other big piece of work started in 2017 has been establishing a system of industry certification for operators, supervisors and managers involved in water and wastewater treatment. It has become very apparent through the Havelock North Inquiry that the sector needs much better systems to train staff and demonstrate their competence to do the job being asked of them.

This is a significant change for the sector that will probably take two to three years to implement. It involves defining a body of knowledge that staff need to be able to demonstrate, arranging a system of competency assessment, and ultimately a system of continuing professional development to maintain that competence.

Another initiative started in 2017 was work by the Department of Internal Affairs on a three waters review. The focus of the review on financial incentives, asset management practices, and compliance and monitoring appears to miss an opportunity to address more fundamental issues facing the water sector. This review was started by the last administration, so perhaps there will be an appetite by the new government for a more ambitious work programme.

For example, issues that might be examined in more detail include whether the time is right to establish an economic regulator for the sector, or perhaps ask the question whether the existing industry structure in terms of the number of entities is actually capable of delivering safe drinking water to all communities. We know the financial and technical capability issues faced by many small councils. At some stage the government needs to address that issue.

Water New Zealand has a wide variety of projects underway. Of significance is the rollout of the metadata standards developed over the past two years. An industry working group has been established to oversee this task and I anticipate good progress in 2018. This speaks to our strategy of getting councils to operate in a more consistent manner.

Another big issue facing the industry is development of a sector workforce capability strategy. A large cohort of older workers is due to retire in the next 15 years and we need a strategy to deal with workforce planning. Too often the people who work in the sector just “end up” working in the water business, rather than us attracting them as part of a deliberate plan. We need to recruit, train and retain staff better in the years ahead.

Finally, we all need to be aware that we have a new government. With the Green Party in government for the first time (with Labour and NZ First) there are likely to be considerable changes in emphasis around their desire to afford greater protection for freshwater resources.

That will undoubtedly be reflected in government policy via the Ministry for the Environment. While the water tax is currently off the table for farmers I suspect plenty of other ways to improve water quality will be under consideration.

This article first appeared in Contractor Perspectives 2018.

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