Disentangling the water reforms
There certainly has been a lot going on at central government in the water space. The speed of what’s been happening, together with new vocabulary, has led to some confusion. We’ll try to briefly explain, untangle, and provide clarity around the changes.
There are three aspects to recent reforms. These are: the proposed Three Waters Reforms, the Water Services Act, and the Freshwater Reforms. These three are linked to some extent, but the core issues are separate.
The proposed Three Waters Reforms relates to local authority infrastructure for drinking water supply, stormwater and wastewater. This is (mostly) managed by city and district councils. The proposed reforms would see the creation of four new entities to manage this infrastructure and be responsible for ensuring it performs appropriately. The Three Waters reforms is the current government’s solution to addressing aging infrastructure, which is known to be a problem in many urban areas.
Some Councils refer to “Four” Waters or even “Five” Waters if they manage water races and / or land drainage networks – it is not clear yet whether these would be managed by the four proposed entities.
The Water Services Act 2021 is a separate issue to Three Waters. This Act has led to the creation of a new water regulator called Taumata Arowai. This is a Crown entity with a Ministerial-appointed board. Alongside the board is a Maori Advisory Group. The main function of this new organisation is to help ensure all communities in New Zealand have access to safe drinking water every day.
The Water Services Act requires all water supplies that deliver water to more than just a person’s own home to be registered and secure, with water safety being ensured using a multi-barrier approach (protect the source and treat the water). This includes small suppliers such as on-farm supplies to workers’ accommodation, shearers quarters – anywhere a water supply is being provided for others to drink. Measures taken to protect the quality of a water source may include restrictions on land-use on farms.
The Freshwater Reforms, also known as the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM), or the Essential Freshwater package, aims to restore the health of our aquifers, rivers, lakes and wetlands. A specific high-level aim is to make all surface waterways swimmable within a generation. The concept of Te Mana o te Wai, and the hierarchy of obligations that goes with this, is the central pillar of these reforms. This gives priority to the health of the waterway, followed by human health, stockwater requirements, economic uses. It’s important to understand that waterway health is about flowrates (quantity) as well as water quality.
Every Regional Council must give effect to Te Mana o te Wai, and in doing so must actively involve Tangata Whenua. Regional Water Plans will need to be updated to give effect to these changes and these need to be publicly notified by 31 December 2024.
All three reforms seek to reduce water-related risks to ecosystems and human health. However, all use very different processes to achieve these goals.
The outcome of the Three Waters reforms is not yet determined. The Water Services Act and new regulation resulting from the Freshwater Reforms are now in place. Having said that, work continues to be done on how they should be implemented. Watch this space as the Water Services Act and the Freshwater Reforms are likely to affect farmers!