The Napier City Council has received its eagerly awaiting review of possible pathways to a chlorine-free water supply.

To no one’s surprise, that path is indeed not free. It would cost about $100 million more than the $178 million required to build a fully health-compliant drinking water system, still using chlorine.

It should be noted that both figures – $178m for safe/compliant and $284m for chlorine free – are, dare we say, fluid, as central to the needed upgrade is overhauling an unground network of some 487 kilometres of antiquated piping … and there’s no telling at this point exactly how decrepit the system might be.

NCC councillors discussed the review with its lead author and peer reviewer on Thursday, and their discussion made very clear that – in any scenario – it would fall to another set of councillors some 20 years from now to actually stop chlorination. That’s how long it will take to build and then test the reliability of a low-leak system (the target currently set is 5% leakage) before safely suspending chlorine use … assuming the Government’s drinking water quality czar then granted the exemption required. More on the czar in a moment.

To its credit, NCC has faced up to the need to make up for decades of neglect to its water systems – not just drinking water, but wastewater and stormwater as well. An intelligent upgrade programme is included in its upcoming LTP (long term plan).

But there still seems to be an unrealistic level of denial regarding the broader Government policy context in which the so-called “3 Waters” will be dealt with in the near future.

The Government is well down the path of a planned reorganisation of 3 Waters governance, putting this in the hands of five or so pan-regional authorities. A first pass at the lowest cost of improving water infrastructure nationwide, prepared for the Dept for Internal Affairs, is $29 billion, and it could rise to $46 billion or more. 

DIA is now analysing detailed information provided by each council in NZ to arrive at a more reliable – and sure to be higher – estimate. This information will be reviewed by Cabinet in April/May and then a reorganisation (i.e. consolidation) plan will be set out. 

Currently, councils are being told they would have the opportunity to opt out of this new governance scheme, after consultation with their respective constituents.

However, key drivers of the Government initiative are: 1) that politically fearful local councils have bungled their responsibility by failing to make the needed investments for decades; and 2) that equity (every New Zealander deserves the same water safety) requires a different funding approach (i.e. rural residents in CHB shouldn’t have to pay grossly more for safe water than their cousins in Napier … and in fact can’t afford to). Solving the problem would appear to be above local councillors’ pay grade.

So, it seems rather unlikely when the hammer comes down that any council, including NCC, will escape the reorganisation. In that context, it’s hard to see how NCC ultimately controls its own chlorine destiny.

But hope springs eternal.

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