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Water works – The story so far

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John Pfahlert provides an update on work to create a new drinking water regulator.

On September 30, the Government agreed to establish the new drinking water regulator as an independent Crown entity. The creation of the regulator as a Crown entity dedicated to drinking water quality and safety is seen as critical to supporting good public health outcomes. A standalone regulator will have the high degree of focus and independence needed to provide confidence in our country’s regulatory regime for drinking water.

It will also contribute to freshwater outcomes by providing central oversight and guidance for the sector’s wastewater and stormwater regulatory functions.

An Establishment Unit is being created within the Department of Internal Affairs, with support from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry for the Environment, to design and operationalise the new regulator.

This work includes a range of planning and pre-establishment tasks to get the regulator up and running.

Associated legislation is expected to be introduced to Parliament before Christmas and is expected to be passed in 2020.

Establishing a dedicated, independent entity with an organisational structure that relates solely to drinking water, rather than having the function as an add on in another agency with much wider responsibilities, will ensure drinking water regulation is prioritised and resources directed accordingly.

The regulator will be overseen by a board with both technical and governance experience. There will be a Maori Advisory board to advise the regulator on, and to uphold, Te Mana o te Wai, and how to enable matauranga Maori and kaitiakitanga to be exercised.

A technical advisory group to advise the regulator on scientific and technical matters more generally is also going to be established.

The regulator will be staffed with up to 150 people with a focus on their technical expertise. It will not be a policy organisation, with those responsibilities remaining with Ministers and Government Departments.

The new regulator will have a wide range of statutory functions. But building capability among drinking water suppliers and across the wider industry is seen as one of its core functions. It will do that by promoting collaboration, education and training.

In addition to being responsible for implementing and enforcing the drinking water standards and water safety plan regime, the new regulator will have responsibility for a range of new functions in relation to wastewater and stormwater.

The Ministry for the Environment has been charged with developing new National Environmental Standards (NES) under the RMA. There will be a new NES for wastewater discharges and overflows, as well as a new safety plan regime for wastewater and stormwater. The existing NES to protect sources of human drinking water will be revised and strengthened.

The new regulator will be required to have oversight of the operation of these national standards, and for setting national performance metrics for wastewater and stormwater.

It will be responsible for collecting, analysing and publishing performance information by wastewater and stormwater operators, and for identifying and promoting national guidelines and good practice advice for wastewater and stormwater network design and management.

Importantly, the new regulator will have independence from Government Ministers when carrying out some functions. A Chief Drinking Water Inspector will be able to undertake enforcement actions independently of the Government of the day.

The regulator will have a strong regional presence of perhaps up to 70 staff, with a mix of drinking water assessors at different levels of seniority, enforcement offices, Maori advisors and administrative support.

One of the big and immediate challenges for the regulator will be starting the process of bringing the many small water system suppliers into the regulatory framework. There are variable estimates of the number of these ranging from 2000 to 7000. They will need a significant degree of technical and educational support to ensure they know and understand their obligations, and how to comply with the regulations.

There is obviously much work still to be done as the legislation winds its way through the house. From an industry standpoint it signals a strong intent by Government to see changes on the ground in terms of how the water sector operates. Water New Zealand is looking forward to working with our members and the new regulator to make the transition as smooth as possible.

• John Pfahlert is CEO of Water New Zealand.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of Local Government Magazine.

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