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Three Waters Reform and Drinking Water Quality

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

Victor Luca

Published in The Beacon, 29-Jun-22

The views I have expressed here are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of any organization with which I am associated.

I have written frequently about water in the Whakatāne Beacon and I made clear my opposition to the 3-waters reforms now before parliament in November of 2021.

As none of us can live without water, the reforms should concern all of us. The relatively general viewpoints I have provided thus far have mostly been directed at technical aspects since I have expertise in the scientific areas of water analysis and treatment and have an interest in what money is and how it is created; the scientific and financial aspects.

Here I want to make one important point regarding drinking water which I regard as the most important of the three waters and which government has emphasized in making its reform case. I focus on drinking water because government continuously cites the Havelock North incident as emblematic of how bad we are doing in water provision. However, government conveniently ignored the fact that the root cause of the Havelock North incident in 2006 was allowing sheep to do their business within 90 m of the water intake. In other words, Havelock North could easily have been avoided. This was also the root cause of a similar incident that occurred in 2012 in the town of Darfield in the South Island.

Drinking water quality is assessed on the concentration of contaminants. These contaminants include pathogens (micro-organisms like bacteria, viruses and protozoa), minerals (phosphorus & nitrogen), sediment and metals and organics compounds. The concentration levels of these contaminants are known as ‘determinands’ and the maximum allowed values (MAV) of these determinands is what sets the quality of the water. If your readers check the NZ drinking water standards you will find MAVs listed for 28 metals, 100 organic compounds and 43 other compounds and elements. As an example, the MAV for the concentration of arsenic in drinking water is 0.01 mg/L as defined in the 2008 drinking water standards. That is, water with an arsenic concentration above this level is by definition non-compliant.

Absolutely pure water would have none of those contaminants. I have carefully compared the 2008 drinking water standards with the new standards that will be used by the new water regulator, Taumata Arowai, and have found that only eight determinands have been changed, and these have been relaxed. What does this mean?

For anyone living in the Whakatāne-Ohope area, which sources its water from the Whakatāne river after treatment at the Valley Road Water Treatment Plant, this means that the quality of the water coming out of your tap when all the dust settles on these reforms will not need to be any better than it is right now.

This is because the standards have not changed. And yet improved drinking water quality is supposedly one of the main motivations for these reforms. What the proposed reforms will do is attempt to force compliance on smaller schemes that are not presently under the regulatory umbrella.

The need to look for better source water is advisable in order to improve resilience of the drinking water provision system. Although we are already compliant in the Whakatāne-Ohope area, if we want to improve the quality of our current drinking water beyond what the standards require, we need to change our source water from the relatively dirty river water to cleaner artesian water. Alternatively, if we continue to use river water, we would need another more sophisticated and modern water treatment plant.


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