Stuart Crosby has called for discussions on upgrading the country’s water infrastructure to include the cost implications of any decisions. He outlined his argument at the 2017 LGNZ Conference in Auckland recently.
The cost of upgrading New Zealand’s current water infrastructure will be in the billions. So any goals on just how clean we want freshwater resources to be, should also include the cost to communities, any necessary economic trade-offs and how the bills might be paid. That’s according to Stuart Crosby who noted these important linkages “have been missing from the discussion so far”.
Stuart is vice president of LGNZ and a councillor at the Bay of Plenty Regional Council. His presentation at the 2017 LGNZ Conference was part of a three-person panel discussion titled ‘Looking after tomorrow’s places 2050: meeting our nation’s water needs’.
Stuart’s call for coupling water infrastructure wish-lists to their financial implications echoes conversations at the LGNZ Freshwater Symposium in Wellington earlier this year.
He notes that health and environmental quality standards, rights to access and use water, and the cost, affordability and provision of infrastructure that delivers water to users and treats wastewater and stormwater are not always considered together.
“Information on the costs of improving water quality is scant. What will the costs be on improving our water quality to meet improved water quality for swimming? This includes removing land from production, direct mitigation and upgrading infrastructure.
“I am not saying we should not do this – I am saying we need to cost this and then work out how it will be paid for.”
He points out the infrastructure used in managing the three waters is owned by communities and the quality of this infrastructure has a direct impact on the quality of streams, lakes and rivers. It is also “fiendishly expensive” to construct or upgrade.
“Achieving desired higher standards will take time, a long time, particularly in some catchments, and will come with costs,” he says. “We need to identify what these costs are, and have serious conversations with our communities and as a society, about how we pay for the work that will be needed.”
Stuart presented a series of examples from both a regional and territorial local authority perspective showing how three waters practices – in terms of both water quality and quantity – have evolved over the past 20 years. While the examples were from Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty, he said they were appropriate to the rest of the country.
Wetland and catchment projects
Stuart says stakeholders throughout the country “are trying hard to move from shouting and blaming each other to working collaboratively to solve some of the very complex challenges that our past approaches to land use and development have presented us with”.
He cites the Kaituna catchment as a good example of regional council leadership and collaboration on a large and integrated scale.
“At the top of the catchment we’re delivering the Rotorua Lakes Programme in partnership with Te Arawa Lakes Trust, Rotorua Lakes Council and MfE. This includes land use change initiatives, innovation trials and a diversion wall in Lake Rotoiti to reduce nutrient load into the headwaters of the Kaituna River.
“Moving down the catchment we’re partnering with landowners on riparian management programmes to reduce sediment and nutrient run-off. Just this year, we’ve started to use E. coli sampling to identify the highest risk areas and target our efforts more strategically.”
He says that as new infrastructure, such as the Tauranga Eastern Arterial road is built or other opportunities such as discharge consent renewals and drainage scheme replacements arise, pre-treatment systems are being incorporated and discharges brought up to modern standards.
“In the lower Kaituna we’ve been partnering with DOC, Maori, private landowners and other stakeholders to recreate and restore more than 100 hectares of wetlands that will help turn the tide on water quality decline, improve climate change resilience and restore wildlife habitat,” he says.
He notes that the Kaituna River was fully diverted for drainage purposes in the 1950s, causing serious damage to the health and mauri of the estuary. “We’re now working to restore 20 percent of the Kaituna River’s freshwater flows into the Maketu estuary, while retaining existing flood protection, drainage levels of service and boating access through the main diversion channel at Te Tumu.”
Stuart says Treaty settlements are driving some of his region’s regulatory changes. He points to the Kaituna and Rangitaiki River documents. The National Policy Statement for Freshwater is also driving change as are the specific needs of local environments and communities.
He says the Lake Rotorua Nutrient Management Plan change (Plan Change 10) will be a “ground-breaker” for the Bay of Plenty.
“It’s been built on strong science and proposes new rules and fair nitrogen discharge allowances that will not just hold the line on nutrient run-off but decrease it,” he says.
He noted that hearings outcomes were due in the next few weeks and Environment Court appeals may follow. “But many of our landowners are already underway with nutrient management plans and consent processes to implement it.
“It’s part of a suite of regulatory and non-regulatory tools to meet a community-led target of preventing 320 tonnes of nitrogen from entering Lake Rotorua by 2032. One hundred and forty tonnes will come from the proposed rules, while a mix of voluntary tools, incentives and water treatment innovations are being used to achieve the rest.”
Stuart notes that pre-treating stormwater via detention ponds or forms of interceptors has been in place in greenfield sites for some time. These ponds are also used for amenity value and create the own mini echo-systems in that catchment.
He adds that upgrade work in brownfield sites is also focusing on a pre-treatment stage for stormwater but acknowledges there is both a higher capital and maintenance cost to these systems.
Wastewater quality improvements
It wasn’t that long ago when basic wastewater treatment facilities discharged polluted water into our waterways or the ocean, says Stuart. “Now there are multi stages in the treatment of wastewater including ultraviolet disinfection and wetland treatment before discharge.”
Meanwhile, he says, onsite wastewater treatment systems have come a long way since the basic septic tank.
Potable water quality improvements
A local government freshwater collaboration group in the Bay of Plenty brings together the regional, city and district councils along with Toi te Ora public health to share information and respond to water management issues and opportunities.
Most recently, the group has agreed to do a joint risk assessment of municipal supplies in the BOP ahead of the Havelock North Stage 2 inquiry findings.
Authorities in the Bay of Plenty have been working with the horticulture industry and held an amnesty to stocktake unconsented water takes and improve understanding of current water use and demand.
Staff held 11 open days throughout the region last year, connecting with more than 200 growers and registering around 130 water takes.
“We’re now working with those growers to bring them into line with regulatory requirements and / or metering where that’s required,” says Stuart.
Through the BOP Regional Growth study, water was identified as a key enabler for economic growth in the region.
Stuart says council is supporting a suite of industry-led initiatives to manage and innovate within the constraints of water resources through the Bay of Connections Economic Action Plan.
“One of those is a $100,000 project we’ve just partnered with MPI on to develop a water study that will explore key barriers and opportunities for water use and access in the region.
“It will result in a strategy that informs future business investment and helps allocate water as efficiently and effectively as possible, by pulling our science and other information in together with insights from farmers, growers, major landowners and industry representatives.”
The regional council is taking a two-step approach to improving the rules for water quantity management in the region.
Stage 1 aims to strengthen existing water allocation limits through a region-wide Water Quantity Plan change. Public submissions were received in December 2016. Hearings are scheduled for October 2017 and the new rules may be operative by March 2018.
The proposed plan change contains new provisions to:
- Enhance metering and reporting requirements so water use can be monitored more clearly;
- Reduce the volume of groundwater available without resource consent;
- Better account for dairy shed water use – farmers will need to meter their dairy shed use separately from stock and domestic water;
- Specifically provide for renewals of municipal takes;
- Differentiate the process for new water take consent applications in fully-allocated catchments compared to underutilised ones; and
- Better enable the sharing of consented water takes through transfers and Water User Groups.
In Stage 2, council will work with communities to set localised limits in nine specific water management areas by 2025, through its National Policy Statement for Freshwater implementation programme.
Monitoring and model development
According to Stuart, there are 681 sites throughout the Bay of Plenty collecting and monitoring data on water quality and quantity. “And still there are more questions about how our water systems work.
“In the Bay of Plenty we’ve been gradually expanding our groundwater monitoring network in recent years. We’re drilling bores at new sites and developing a groundwater flow model to better understand the groundwater resource, potential effects of abstraction on stream flows.
“That work takes time and money but it will provide us with better management tools for allocation of groundwater resources.”
2D stormwater modelling
Council has been using a 2D stormwater catchment modelling tool to determine upgrade projects. The tool has informed capital expense business cases. In some cases this has changed the approach taken from piping the way out of the problem to going back to overland flow paths.
Water metering and education
Alongside fluoride, water meters are highly controversial, says Stuart. “In my view the debates are hijacked away from conservation, fairness and equality, to cost and setting up to sell the water business to the private sector.”
He argues that water meters are effective. “They reduce consumption which delays upgrades for quantity. They also have a positive impact on wastewater treatment plants: less water in; less water out.”
Growing wastewater infrastructure
Finally, he cites Tauranga City Council’s $103 million Southern Pipeline project which is now entering its final stages. The project is 65 percent funded by financial contributions and 35 percent by wastewater charges across the city of Tauranga.
The project aims to both protect the environment by reducing the potential for overflows and allow for growth in homes and businesses.
This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.