Water quality, population growth or decline, consent processes, asset condition and performance, new technologies, workforce skills and, perhaps most crucially, affordability: Patricia Moore outlines the challenges facing councils in managing their wastewater assets over the next decade.
A UN-Water brief, released at the conclusion of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals agenda last year, focused on the global problems and challenges created by neglect in the area of wastewater management and recognised the link with a range of other water, and non-water, issues. It highlighted the need for wastewater management and water quality to “stop being the poor relations and receive attention in their own right”.
While perhaps not a poor relation, wastewater management can be a political hot potato. The recent local body elections saw public concerns around potable water quality voiced and, in Whanganui, unhappy ratepayers, faced with shelling out millions of dollars to replace a treatment plant commissioned in 2007 and already defunct, made their displeasure clear.
The quality of our river water has also been making news with the ongoing debate over whether it’s acceptable that it’s ‘wade-able’ rather than ‘swim-able’. “We see the drive to improve river quality only increasing,” says Robert White, ACENZ board member and Auckland water and wastewater group manager at GHD, “with all sources, including wastewater effluent discharges coming under scrutiny.”
Consultants spoken to by Local Government Magazine indicate widespread issues around wastewater management which they believe will challenge councils over the next decade. These range from water quality to population growth – or lack of it, consent processes, asset condition and performance, new technologies, a skilled workforce and, perhaps most crucially, affordability. Maintaining the same level of service or providing an improved level to keep up with growth will require substantial investment.
Mott Macdonald’s Steve Couper, water sector leader, Asia, Pacific and Australasia, notes a number of smaller local authorities are already struggling to meet basic statutory obligations, such as consent compliance, and the current funding arrangements make improvements or further mandates unaffordable.
To expect a small community to have the funding capacity to meet first world environmental compliance through a politically-driven vehicle is simply burying your head in the sand, says Steve. “Instead of talking rate reductions, where’s the hero who chants ‘I will stop polluting your environment and obtain the necessary funding?’.
“The challenge [for local government] is being willing to step into the leadership vacuum left by central government and make them understand that this critical infrastructure needs clear and concise pricing regulation, an improved funding mechanism – not one related to a three-year political cycle and competing with other territorial authority obligations – and that recognises the unique externalities associated with wastewater.”
With increasing pressure to reduce rate rises, councils will be forced to review their infrastructure budgets and consider the economic benefits of any scheme, predicts Ash Deshpande, lead process water and wastewater engineer with Harrison Grierson.
“Wastewater treatment plants are expensive to upgrade and faced with pressures from environmental groups and regional councils, this could be a major strain on operational budgets.”
Advances such as energy recovery and biosolids management options used overseas are likely to become more common in New Zealand, suggests Luke Meys, Opus market director water, environmental and local government. However, there are examples of high-tech, high-cost solutions being recommended for small communities where technological enhancements to existing assets may be a more balanced option.
“Establishing systems that balance affordability, technology and higher environmental standards, with community expectations that those standards can be achieved within a reasonable cost, is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry.”
Ash says with infrastructure planning based on population growth models, the housing boom and renewed developer interest are creating a disruption. “High immigration and housing expansion mean the current growth models will need tweaking, as will those in centres where the population is declining.”
Increased developer interest will involve rethinking wastewater networks, treatment and disposal. “Any changes to the volume of wastewater will need additional treatment plants and may trigger a change in resource consent conditions, in itself a major challenge.”
Luke says issues around consents and consent renewals are another concern. “There’s currently anecdotal evidence these are time consuming, confrontational between the various stakeholders, costly, and sometimes sub-optimal in terms of outcome.
“Importantly these conditions of consent need to consider the affordability of the communities that are being asked to pay.”
Retaining a skilled and suitably resourced operational workforce is another potential problem for local government; with the current demographic in the 40 to 50 year-old band, retirements over the next decade will see a significant reduction in numbers. As issues around wastewater management become more complex and the available solutions increase, councils may find they lack the necessary expertise to handle them.
“Contractors, plant owners, industry training organisations and trainers all need to encourage a healthy supply of well-trained operators,” says Luke.
So will there be changes to the role of local authorities in wastewater management? The complexity of the issues and the range of solutions around wastewater management will continue to increase, he says.
“It’s probable that some councils that do not have extensive and recent expertise in dealing with them will need to seek advice from those who have these skills. Whether that’s in the form of shared services or outsourcing is unclear.”
The Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill (No.2) seeks to facilitate the establishment of cross-boundary council-controlled organisations such as are already in place with Wellington Water.
If cross-boundary CCOs are formed, it is anticipated that it will enable the larger organisations to employ more specialists, allowing a better understanding of the issues, required outcomes and whole-of-life costs.
Mott MacDonald’s Steve Couper says local authorities are quite capable of delivering first-world water services – what they lack is suitable economic and environmental regulation, and a secure long-term hypothecated funding mechanism with economies of scale.
“With this we would see many changes including compliance with water quality requirements and greater expertise and capability within organisations around wastewater management.”
- Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. email@example.com
In the December issue
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This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.