'You have to take scale into account': Concern for smaller councils within new water bodies

Posted 4 March 2024 by Moana Ellis
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Photo: Michael Heim/ 123rf

Rangitīkei mayor Andy Watson is keeping a close eye on the issue of scale in new entities that could be set up by councils to run water services.

The government is developing new water reform policy – Local Water Done Well – and plans later this year to introduce a bill allowing councils to band together to form council-controlled organisations (CCOs). The CCOs aim to achieve balance sheet separation and borrow more than individual councils are able to on their own.

“You have to take scale into account,” Watson said.

“The weighting and influence on a CCO board will be determined by population. For example, in a Northland-Auckland CCO, Auckland would demand more representation.”

He said while that was fair and reasonable, it was a potential risk for smaller councils teaming up with city councils responsible for a bigger population base.

For Rangitīkei, a CCO arrangement would most likely involve councils within the Horizons Regional Council borders: Horowhenua, Manawatū, Ruapehu, Tararua and Whanganui district councils and Palmerston North City Council.

The previous government’s Affordable Water Reform (earlier called Three Waters) was to create 10 new water entities responsible for water assets. The legislation was scrapped by the new government under urgency in mid-February as part of its 100-day plan.

Rangitīkei began a series of works before the change of government to address compliance issues and head off potential disadvantage as a smaller council clustered with bigger authorities.

“If Three Waters had gone ahead in the form the Labour government suggested and legislated for, we could have been out-voted by metro councils with more say,” Watson said.

“Their immediate needs could have taken preference – for example, Wellington or Palmerston North who haven’t allowed for wastewater upgrades.

“So we were proactive. We started a series of works that would then need to be completed.”

Rangitīkei mayor Andy Watson - single use only

Rangitīkei mayor Andy Watson says smaller councils that team up with bigger ones in new water entities risk having less say. Photo: LDR / Peter McDermott

One focus has been new wastewater dispersal schemes on land to end discharging into streams, rivers and lakes.

“For far too long as a country we’ve said we’re quite happy to discharge waste material to our waterways. We’ve accepted, as a country, degradation of amazing assets and it hasn’t been questioned enough.

“You can’t say we can continue as we were. The preference of iwi and ourselves is to discharge [treated wastewater] wherever possible to land rather than awa or lakes.”

The council is on the hunt for substantial blocks of land to create dispersal fields for wastewater, from Marton and Bulls.

“We’re talking well over 100 hectares. There are locations we are looking at and negotiations underway.”

The council has made a start at one of the country’s most important Māori communities, Rātana Pā, where treated wastewater is discharged from the treatment plant into a waterway that leads to Lake Waipu.

Tests have shown that the Waipu and its fish and plants are in a poor state.

A $6.4 million project funded by the council and the Ministry for the Environment will divert treated wastewater to two parcels of land purchased by the council near Whangaehu beach.

These will become dispersal fields for Pā wastewater, and a restoration plan will be put in place for the Waipu.

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air