Central Otago people can expect to start hearing hard facts about the Three Waters reform as the deadline looms to opt in or out of the Government proposal to centralise water services.

As directed by the Government, councils are working towards the end of this year to make a decision about the future management of Three Waters waste and stormwater which will culminate in the Water Services Bill coming into effect on July 1, 2024.

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan said the Government’s timeline was “loose” but indications were if councils had not made a decision to opt out by the end of this year, they would be automatically opted in to the reforms.

“We don’t specifically know when the deadline is, but it’s important to me to get the information out there first.”

The Central Otago District Council’s (CODC) strategy to deliver the facts to the public was being worked on and rolled out over the next few weeks.

There were many unknowns and questions about how the reform would affect the district, the greatest concerning the small rural schemes that abounded in Central Otago.

Drinking water standards were the crux of the reform, because of the Havelock North gastro deaths in 2016, “because that should not have happened in a First World country,” Mr Cadogan said.

Wastewater was the next-biggest concern, “because if we stuff up and put wastewater in the river [at an unacceptable pollution level] the ORC will prosecute”.

Disposal into waterways would no longer be acceptable, and new treatment plants would need to be built for the dispersal of wastewater on land.

The “poor child” was stormwater, which should not normally pose a problem unless it carried contaminants, therefore it was debatable whether this type of water should also be treated.

Mr Cadogan referred to the $12.8million “dirty carrot” the council had been offered by the Government to opt in; what would happen if the council did not opt in but was later forced to, was not clear.

“I think that there is a mandate from the Government this will all happen anyway but that doesn’t impact on us still going through the process to have a really balanced discussion.”

The council had engaged an independent consultant to look at the cost projections a rate rise from $1071 to $1640 in the next 30 years if the council opted in and $7790 if it did not.

“Even if these Government figures are even remotely right, the people of Central Otago today have to be thinking of the people of the future.”

If the council opted in, the district would still own its water services infrastructure; it would be the management and governance that would be centralised but people were anxious about a “government takeover”, he said.

They were also concerned Three Waters represented about a third of the council’s business its balance sheet.

How water services would be serviced was unknown, particularly for the remote communities such as Patearoa and elsewhere in Maniototo, which regularly had boil-water notices.

“They’re not going to get someone down for a burst pipe from Christchurch to fix it.”

How a centralised service would impact on growth, such as establishing the water supply to a new subdivision, for instance, was also unknown.

The district had also seen the “Aurora factor”, where the cost of power had risen to pay for an upgrade of the Dunedin City Council-owned company’s ageing infrastructure “and people quite rightly feel shafted,” Mr Cadogan said.

Like power, in the end water was a commodity.

“No doubt, the [cost of] Three Waters will go up either way, and what it will cost to opt in or opt out is an unknown.

“Can I in all conscience commit my people to paying [another] $6000 in 30 years’ time? It’s going to be the biggest decision that we’ll make around the table.”

The Manuherikia River minimum flows options had probably confused people into thinking it was part of the reform but it was not a CODC matter and had no bearing on opting in or out.