Water quality, global warming and now drinking water standards.

It was a lot for rural communities to take on board, AWS Legal partner Mary Flannery said.

She was speaking at the first instalment in what promises to be an ongoing and robust discussion around the Government’s mission to ensure that rural communities have access to safe drinking water.

The law firm hosted information sessions in Central Otago this week at the four major rural centres of Cromwell, Millers Flat, Alexandra and Ranfurly.

“No-one is arguing that safe drinking water has to be a given, but it is a lot for the rural sector to get their heads around on top of everything else,” Mrs Flannery said.

“It’s significant legislative changes and they will have an effect but there is time to make a plan,” she told a packed-out session at Cromwell on Tuesday.

Topics discussed included the changes ahead for private water supplies (drinking water taken outside of town supply), the new Water Services Bill, new duties, obligations, liabilities and potential exceptions.

It was the first opportunity for many to hear how the new Bill, which will be passed as the new Water Services Act by the end of this year, would affect them.

The Bill came about as a result of the 2016 campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North when bacteria entered the town’s water supply after run-off from a nearby sheep farm entered the Brookvale boreholes following heavy rain.

Of the town’s 13,000 residents, 5500 fell ill, 45 were hospitalised and four died.

Lead-contaminated water north of Dunedin in February this year had also caused concern.

Changes imposed by the Bill would apply to all drinking water suppliers. These were the owners and the operators of water supplies, and those who supplied drinking water to another supplier.

An example of a rural agricultural supply would be a farm, where water was provided at a low volume to a point such as a storage tank, which supplied multiple buildings with drinking water, such as the farmhouse, shearers’ and staff quarters, the milking shed etc, as well as stock troughs.

Session-goers heard about Taumata Arowai, set up last year as the new water services regulator for New Zealand. The Crown entity made a commitment to ensuring all communities had access to safe drinking water and would provide an oversight role in protecting the environment from the impacts of waste and stormwater.

The Ministry of Health was the current drinking water regulator. Taumata Arowai would become fully operational when it took over from the Ministry, following the commencement of the Water Services Act.

Large scale suppliers (serving 500 or more people) would have a year to submit a plan of compliance and smaller suppliers (serving fewer than 500 people) five years.

Reaching the required standard could require lab testing, filtration and UV treatment, but it was understood at the meeting that no-one had discussed costs as yet.

Maraes and back-country huts could be possible exemptions as water suppliers.

Concerns were raised at the session about the onus being put on farmers and small suppliers; that farmers were “getting it in the neck again, and the townies were getting off”.

Guest speaker Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan said no-one was getting off lightly.

He acknowledged “the stress that rural communities are under”, but the compliance might not be as bad as it seemed.

“I would agree, we have got time [to make a plan]. It’s just going to be another pain in the arse.”

The most important thing was to have safe drinking water, and the Havelock deaths were a reminder of that, he said.

“We’re the only country in the world who think our bore water is safe. We’re only just catching up.”