Sparkling? Still? Or boiled? The government inquiry into the contamination of the Havelock North water supply could carry significant implications for how council-controlled water supplies are managed in the future. Patricia Moore asks water specialists what smart solutions could look like in 2018 and beyond.
Speaking at the 2017 Water New Zealand Drinking Water conference, Canadian drinking water expert Dr Steve Hrudey made the point that you can have cheap water and you can have safe water, ‘but you cannot have cheap, safe water’. (Dr Hrudey reportedly boiled his drinking water while in New Zealand).
And, as was highlighted by the two-part government inquiry into the 2016 contamination of the Havelock North water supply, way too many Kiwis are consuming water that’s far from safe.
Public health risk assessment and mitigation have become critical and local authorities are revising their capital investment priorities as a result, says Tony Cussins, Tonkin + Taylor technical director – hydrogeology.
“The top priority for all our local authority clients is to ensure, and be able to demonstrate, that a consistently high-quality, safe, drinking water supply is being provided to their communities, irrespective of size or location.”
So, are local authorities looking for smart solutions to make this happen? Tony: “Councils are looking for both smart and different: Water supply projects now require specialist, multi-disciplinary inputs over a wide range of services including hydrology, contaminant hydrogeology, risk assessment, civil and geotechnical engineering, and planning.
“Our conversations with clients are now around developing a cost-effective ‘source-to-tap’ solution that includes a transparent end-to-end process with real-time, technology-driven, analysis and reporting. That’s what our ‘smart’ solutions mainly look like.”
With local authorities needing support in new and quite specific areas of compliance, bringing them in-house may not be the smartest solution.
According to Chris Laidlaw of specialist water processing firm Lutra, a T+T partner, in-house management is not necessarily cost-effective, nor is the specialist experience always available.
“The complexities involved in collecting, cleansing, analysing, collating and reporting on the enormous amount of data generated by modern-day water supply networks demand a range of skills and expertise that makes outsourcing it to specialists the most sensible option.”
Harrison Grierson water & wastewater manager Iain Rabbitts says one person’s smart is another person’s cheap. Iain reports that, rather than thinking smart solutions, his firm’s focus is on “getting the right solution, first time, and not cutting corners.
“While more automation, more monitoring, less operator attendance and clever ways of reporting may all be smart, they come with a price tag. There are no silver bullets.”
Timothy Phelan, global water sector leader for water and wastewater at Opus, says population growth combined with regulations requiring higher levels of treatment, are putting the pressure on councils.
He suggests that, more than ever, the squeeze on financial resources will demand not just smart solutions but also those that make the best use of existing infrastructure and benefit from the lessons learned.
This is especially true when chlorine disinfection of groundwater supplies is being considered. “This can change the water chemistry, sometimes with dramatic results with groundwater.”
He says if UV disinfection is present in the treatment, precipitants created through chlorination can increase the fouling rates of UV equipment. Effects within the distribution system can also be quite pronounced, says Timothy.
“Careful planning and asking the right questions will go a long way to ensure any investments in treatment provide value and avoid exacerbating a challenging situation.”
He notes there’s a long list of communities which have created water quality problems when adding a form of treatment that fundamentally changes water chemistry.
“Bench testing with the actual bore water using the planned treatment approach should always be completed to verify performance and identify any problems. It’s inexpensive and provides hard data that does not lie.”
Given the recommendations of the government inquiry, Tony believes there’s likely to be a significant overhaul at the regulatory level, from the structure of the regulator through to regulations including compliance and reporting changes, further development of a risk-based approach, and the requirement to produce robust prevention and preparedness water safety plans.
“Moving past 2018 we’ll see widespread use of the latest technology for compliance and reporting purposes.”
He notes some local authorities have already integrated data capture processes into their water supply systems, “and we can expect to see more, including improved real-time monitoring and the introduction of critical control points which identify key risk elements”.
The government inquiry produced 51 findings; at this stage they are exactly that – findings – says GHD water quality lead Peter Free. “The confirmation and implementation of all, or some, of these by the government is likely to take some time. Therefore water supply authorities need to consider carefully the items that might need urgent attention compared to those where they have time to research and plan their upgrades in a logical, holistic fashion.”
The enormity of what’s happened around potable water supply has made councils look harder at their spending, says Iain, “and they’re realising the amounts needed are huge, not just in capital expenditure but also training, expertise, maintenance and operations. I believe this is frightening for some councils.”
He suggests the solution lies in larger, single purpose entities. “Having 67 local authorities, 20 DHBs, 11 regional councils, five unitary authorities and seven ministries involved in providing water for 4.5 million people is absurd. Scotland provides water for 6.5 million people with two entities.”
Iain echoes inquiry chair Lyn Stevens’ point that there’s “a unique opportunity to make a significant change”. Iain says “we must grasp it with both hands. We need to start regarding water supply as a national issue – not a local one. Those in the water sector need to be thinking ‘what’s best for New Zealand?’”
He believes local government is not the best place for water supply as it doesn’t allow larger centres, with about 52 percent of the country’s population, to support the smaller, less populated areas.
“Amalgamation of water supplies is coming. Local government should think about how it wants to be involved in that process and how that might be facilitated. Since the release of the Stage 2 report, my observation is that councils are seeing resourcing as one of the major hurdles, mainly in terms of expertise.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.