Robust decisions made in 2018 will shape the water sector for decades to come. John Pfahlert, chief executive, Water New Zealand.
The Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry was a key emphasis for the water sector in 2017. The preparation of agreed industry submissions and attendance at the inquiry in Hastings occupied a great deal of both staff and board time at Water New Zealand.
When the inquiry report was released in December, we were pleased to see many of our submissions reflected in the 51 recommendations. The government is now signalling that we are likely to see major reform in the sector and this is something we at Water New Zealand welcome.
It is clear that unless there are significant changes to the way drinking water is regulated, there is a serious risk of another contamination outbreak on the scale of Havelock North.
In particular, we support the inquiry recommendation that the government create an establishment unit to oversee the creation of a new drinking water regulator and that all public water supplies have mandatory treatment of drinking water, including the use of a residual disinfectant.
The report accurately identified the lack of competence and training in the sector – something that the industry has known about for some time. It has called for a mandatory training and qualification regime to be established for all operators, supervisors and managers working in the sector. This is an initiative Water New Zealand is already acting on. See more on this further down.
The inquiry included recommendations in relation to the aggregation of water suppliers. Given that it has observed this would lead to improved compliance, competence and accountability, Water New Zealand is urging the government to urgently investigate this recommendation.
Reflecting the need to ensure industry is well informed about what’s expected of it post the inquiry reporting, Water New Zealand has recruited additional expertise in water quality, and will be providing a more coherent industry advisory service around water treatment and water safety plan development starting in 2018.
Direct charges for water
Changing subject, I have detected an increased focus this year within the sector to treat ratepayers as customers. Watercare chief executive Raveen Jaduram spoke on the subject at our 2017 annual conference in Hamilton, noting that the customer should be at the heart of all that water suppliers do.
Last year, Water New Zealand undertook a major public opinion survey of attitudes toward water. Presented at the conference, this report marks the start of a work plan for Water New Zealand on trying to understand what customers really want from the industry.
For example, the survey suggests 60 percent of the ratepaying public want to be charged directly for the water they use, rather than having water service charges buried in their rates bill. That result was a surprise, as water metering always seems to be a focal point for opposition within communities.
Industry training via blended learning
The board of Water New Zealand has asked the staff to take a greater leadership role in the organisation around industry training. New qualifications start to be delivered in 2018, and there is a strong industry desire to move away from the traditional block courses offered to the sector towards a world of blended learning.
This involves the ability to do distance / e-learning and more on-job training. This will require Water New Zealand to be more directly involved with Connexis going forward, and in the arrangement of training delivery.
Water industry certification
Last year we also started work on establishing a system of industry certification for operators, supervisors and managers involved in water and wastewater treatment. It has become glaringly apparent through the Havelock North Inquiry that the sector needs much better systems to train staff and demonstrate their competence to do the job being asked of them.
This is a really significant change for the sector that will probably take two to three years to implement. It involves defining a body of knowledge that staff need to be able to demonstrate, arranging a system of competency assessment, and ultimately a system of continuing professional development to maintain that competence.
Three waters review
Last year the Department of Internal Affairs started work on a three waters review. The focus of the review on financial incentives, asset management practices, and compliance and monitoring appears to miss an opportunity to address more fundamental issues facing the water sector.
This review was started by the last administration, so perhaps there will be an appetite by the new government for a more ambitious work programme.
For example, issues that might be examined in more detail include whether the time is right to establish an economic regulator for the sector, or perhaps ask the question whether the existing industry structure in terms of the number of entities is actually capable of delivering safe drinking water to all communities.
We know the financial and technical capability issues faced by many small councils. At some stage the government needs to address that issue.
Water New Zealand has a wide variety of projects underway. Of significance is the rollout of the metadata standards developed over the past two years. An industry working group has been established to oversee this task and I anticipate good progress in 2018. This speaks to our strategy of getting councils to operate in a more consistent manner.
Sector workforce capability strategy
Another big issue facing the industry is development of a sector workforce capability strategy. A large cohort of older workers is due to retire in the next 15 years and we need a strategy to deal with workforce planning. Too often the people who work in the sector just “end up” working in the water business, rather than us attracting them as part of a deliberate plan. We need to recruit, train and retain staff better in the years ahead.
Finally, we all need to be aware that we have a new government. With the Green Party in government for the first time (with Labour and NZ First) there are likely to be considerable changes in emphasis around its desire to afford greater protection for freshwater resources.
That will undoubtedly be reflected in government policy via the Ministry for the Environment. While the water tax is currently off the table for farmers, I suspect there are plenty of other ideas under consideration for ways to improve water quality.
This article was first published in the Perspectives 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.