I trust you are well and that you are getting through the winter OK.
It has been a challenging one, weather wise, and as flooding around New Zealand continues to cause major issues, I’m grateful that we haven’t had to deal with problems as significant as the likes of Buller district have had. Long may that last.
However, the Three Waters issue does continue to grow in significance and is rising in the public’s awareness, not the least due to the rather poor media campaign that the Government has been running on the topic. There has been a lot of discussion in the community about it, and there has been no shortage of advice being given to elected members on the direction we should take.
I thought it would be useful to go through some of the facts to give some context to the issue. As I do this, it is important for me to point out that I do not have a fixed opinion on the matter, and that in my role as a member of Local Government’s National Council, I have been more involved in the ongoing discussion than many other mayors.
The following answers include facts as I know them, and reasons given by central government for carrying out this reform.
What are the Three Waters?
They are the services provided for the supply of drinking water, and for wastewater treatment and disposal. It also includes storm water, though in different districts the actual delivery of that service can range from very minimal through to major.
Why are we having a discussion on Three Waters?
Originally sparked by the Havelock North water contamination, it is fundamentally because there has been an underinvestment in infrastructure resulting in health issues for New Zealanders, and environmental issues for our places. Again, this can range widely, but the underinvestment does exist in almost every district.
What will happen if we leave the situation as it is?
The concern is that the underinvestment will continue. Too many councils have made political decisions in the past to keep rates down instead of investing the necessary money in water assets. To catch up, it is estimated that another $120billion to $185billion is required. If we move to four larger entities, this can be drastically cut by creating a more efficient system.
Why are Maori being involved and will they own any of the water assets?
Iwi are being involved as co-governors to bring their perspective to the governance of the entities, and to introduce Te Tiriti principles of co-governance. They will not own the assets.
Who will own the assets, and can they be privatised?
Councils will still own the assets but be at arms length from the decision-making. Any government is prevented from binding a future government from making a different decision, so it is proposed that there will be a referendum system that requires any privatisation of the assets to be agreed to by 75% of the voters. It is considered that council ownership and iwi involvement in governance of the entities will also make such a decision more difficult.
What is the timeline for decisions, and do councils have to consult their communities?
Some initial work to improve the available information needs to be completed by the end of September. It is my expectation that we should consult fully with our community on whether to pass our water assets to a new entity, or to stay as we are.
What do Waitaki’s numbers look like? According to the figures provided by the company commissioned by the Government, Waitaki ratepayers pay an average of $1060 for water and wastewater services. If council continues to deliver those services, the expectation is that the figure in 30 years time will be more than $13,000 per serviced property, and that is in today’s dollars. If we have an entity which covers most of the South Island, that figure will instead be $1640.
Do we have faith in the numbers? Quite simply, no. The figures are based on a number of assumptions, which we believe they have got very wrong. Waitaki’s water assets are in very good order compared to most councils. Most of our water schemes have had upgrades to bring them up to the new drinking water standards. All wastewater treatment plants operate within their resource consents, and we have been carrying out a significant programme of pipe renewals. I estimate that we could deal with the vast majority of outstanding upgrades with around $80million to $100million, but the consultants have estimated something closer to $1.5billion, a huge difference.
Where to from here?
We need to verify what our actual numbers are. We need to understand just how big the real problem is and how much it will cost to meet future standards. Only then can we have a proper discussion with you, our community.
There are many more questions I could raise here as this is a complex situation with so many variables. But you can be assured that your councillors are among the best-informed elected members on this topic in New Zealand. We want to have a proper discussion on the issue, and we want to ensure you have a say in the supply of this most important service that we deliver.
Gary Kircher is the Mayor for Waitaki