A benchmarking tool reveals big differences in councils’ approaches to water, says Lesley Smith.
We require a lot from our water systems. They need to protect public health and the environment, be reliable, resilient, resource-efficient, economically-sustainable and responsive to customers. These performance aspects are the focus of Water New Zealand’s National Performance Review, an annual benchmark of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater service delivery around the country.
The latest National Performance Review (NPR) has just been published and it shows a wide range of differences between councils over their approach to matters such as stormwater consents and climate change preparedness.
The NPR is a voluntary initiative, developed in conjunction with, and primarily for, water managers. The report covers 44 council and council controlled organisations, whose jurisdictions cover just shy of 90 percent of New Zealand’s population.
Council managers, communications and finance staff, councillors, and members of the public with an interest in water issues, will also find it a useful resource.
EVOLVING TRENDS & NEW FOCUS
Performance indicators applying to the core aspect of service provision are included every year (see figure “Aspects of service provision”). These provide a comprehensive snapshot of evolving trends in the sector since 2007/08.
New in 2016/17 was information on sector staffing, emergency planning, climate change preparedness, stormwater discharge consenting and sewage containment.
These revealed a number of issues that Water New Zealand is working with its members and stakeholders to address.
Stormwater discharge consents
The growing concerns around freshwater quality and the need for stormwater quality improvements and associated consents to drive improvements is becoming a big focus for regional councils. The report shows that the approach to consenting stormwater systems is highly variable. Some networks hold consents for all stormwater discharges, others have no consents at all, and there is a broad range in between.
The Havelock North inquiry heard concerns about water sector staff capability and capacity. The sector has been concerned about this for some time. The NPR report found a vacancy rate of nearly 10 percent for roles in drinking water services. While most participants (78 percent) do have performance improvement plans in place, an average of only $1797 is budgeted for water staff training.
Most authorities have emergency management plans. However, the nature of events planned for varies enormously. Councils do not always plan for events such as water supply interruptions or contamination. There is a lot to be gained by local authorities sharing information on the plans they have in place. Water New Zealand will be working with its members to assist in this.
Climate change preparedness
In high-level planning documents almost all participants identified climate change as a risk to the delivery of their services. However, few have detailed projections to use as the basis for their design assumptions.
For those that do, information sources and projections vary enormously. For example, turn of the century sea level rise projections varied from 0.5 to 1.6 metres.
To this end, the subsequently released Ministry for the Environment, Coastal Hazards and Climate Change guidance for local government is an essential resource. Further information is still needed to guide decision-making related to changes in rainfall.
Incidences of sewage overflows into the environment, related to water entering the sewer in wet weather, increased by 379 percent from the previous year.
Given the weather in 2016/17, this should be no surprise. Spring of 2016 was wetter than normal, and autumn of 2017 was the wettest on record for parts of the country.
Stories of closed beaches in Auckland dominated the media. But the report shows that wet weather sewage overflows are far from an Auckland-only issue.
When it rains, additional water makes its way into the sewerage system, referred to as inflow and infiltration. The report shows that in wet weather events, a number of networks have sewage flows more than 10 times their dry weather volumes.
The report highlights a range of plans local authorities have in place for addressing this issue. It also looks at what standards are in place for sewage containment, showing that many have yet to adopt standards which would help set level-of-service expectations around wet weather overflows.
• Lesley Smith is technical coordinator at Water New Zealand. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.