Too pricey for small water suppliers

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Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan weighs up the pros and cons of a new national water initiative.

News out of Wellington of the formation of a dedicated water watchdog that will set standards and have monitoring and enforcement powers following the Havelock North water contamination is welcomed by local government.

However, as with any time a pendulum swings back, we need to be cautious of the pace and the degree of reaction to an event that should absolutely never have happened.

It is a sad reality that there is an inherent risk to any untreated water supply, no matter how clean and green we like to think New Zealand is, and it is long overdue that central government made efforts to ensure that the almost-voluntary drinking water standards we have are enforced.

But in one aspect, the pendulum is swinging far too far back to be sensible and that is in relation to small supplies.

Currently any supply which serves 25 people or more must be registered and is then monitored by the Drinking Water assessor. Under the new proposals, all suppliers apart from individual households that have their own sources will need to comply with the new regulatory requirements.

What that means in an on-the-ground sense is that a farmhouse that currently gets water from a bore, rainwater tanks or a creek that then runs a pipe to a couple of workers’ cottages is [at present] exempt, but under the new proposal, will be deemed a water scheme.

There has been some suggestion that each of these micro-operations will need to have three-stage water treatment, being filtration, chlorination and ultra-violet treatment. Such set-ups are not cheap to install and not simple to run, especially at the level of compliance one can envisage a regulator will require. And here’s where this proposal should concern everyone.

Under the concept that is being floated, if a water supply scheme (remember that is one house feeding another) is deemed unable to afford or incapable of running the scheme, the onus will fall on the local council.

In Central Otago, there are hundreds of these “schemes”, meaning hundreds of thousands of potential dollars in costs to us all.

So, let’s go back to the problem, being the risk of contaminated water.

Risk lies in all things in life, and there is obviously good sense in managing risk, particularly when this relates to public safety and health, but what this idea seems like to me is an effort to eliminate almost all risk.

I totally support treatment of water in town supplies where 25 or more people can be adversely affected if things go wrong.

But the cost-benefit balance of addressing the risk in small operations that only serve a couple of properties at potentially massive expense to the ratepayer is, to my mind, an overreaction to what happened in Havelock North.