Government to consider merging inadequate drinking water suppliers

The contamination of Havelock North's water supply wasn't confined to that region.

The government will consider merging council-run drinking water suppliers among the raft of recommendations to deal with New Zealand's inadequate drinking water system.

Attorney-General David Parker today released the second stage of the government's inquiry into Havelock North Drinking Water, outlining 51 recommendations including legislation rewrites and tougher regulation to deal with a failure to provide safe drinking water to all of the country's population. The inquiry panel chaired by retired appeal court judge Lyn Stevens found in their follow-up report that the contamination of Havelock North's water supply wasn't confined to that region, with water suppliers across the country sharing those problems and many not meeting minimum compliance levels.

"These findings point to a widespread systemic failure among water suppliers to meet the high standards required for the supply of safe drinking water to the public," the report said. "The industry has demonstrated that it is not capable of itself improving when the standards are not met."

The investigation was triggered by the outbreak of a gastro illness, laying low more than 2,000 people in the Hawke's Bay town in 2016 when the local supply, sourced from shallow bores extracting groundwater, was contaminated.

The panel, rounded out by NZQA chief executive Karen Poutasi and Wellington engineer Anthony Wilson, said the government should make "a decisive and definitive assessment of whether to mandate, or persuade, suppliers to establish aggregated dedicated water suppliers", which could provide greater economies of scale "to improve compliance, competence and accountability," in their report.

Other recommendations include universal treatment of water, setting up a new independent drinking water regulator, strengthening legislation, and imposing a licensing system.

Health Minister David Clark is seeking urgent advice to put to Cabinet before Christmas, while Parker, who is also Environment Minister, is seeking advice on the recommendations and regulations.

Water quality has been a vexed issue for political parties, with the previous administration attempting to find consensus through the Land and Water Forum, while the ruling Labour Party was forced to drop its planned tax for commercial water use by coalition partner NZ First, although they do plan to impose a levy on drinking water exports.

The report estimates more than 759,000 people were exposed to potentially unsafe water in 2015/16 and between 18,000 and 100,000 people probably got sick. That's thought to cost the country $12.5 million-to-$23.7 million a year, excluding extra costs of an outbreak or the intangible cost of pain, suffering and death, the report said.

Parker said the government has written to mayors and district health boards around the country to check the water they're supplying their residents is meeting current standards.

(BusinessDesk)

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