Engineering New Zealand welcomes the Government’s announcement of a dedicated water watchdog and new water regulations.

At the moment, decisions about whether and how to treat water are make on a local basis by politicians not water experts. As we said in Engineering a Better New Zealand: Seismic resilience and Water, we support the Government taking action to protect and improve drinking, waste and stormwater quality through the creation of a dedicated regulator.

The Government will introduce a new Bill which will extend regulatory coverage to all drinking water suppliers apart from people on self-supply. This step forward is long overdue.

The proposed functions of the regulator include not only setting standards, monitoring and enforcement but also sector leadership, capability building, information, advice and education.

For the regulator to be successful, it will need the capacity and capability to meet and enforce new standards. This means engineers at all the right levels, including technicians, technologists and professional engineers, as well as a wide range of technical disciplines and skilled operators.

If water services are provided at a district or city level simply because that’s how it’s always been done, then we think this should be challenged.

The Government hasn’t yet provided any detail on the possible aggregation of water service providers, which would drive efficiency. Getting the degree of aggregation right is crucial – and this is something engineers should help define. 

There are broader questions about the capability and sustainability of water service providers, including affordability of infrastructure and funding pressures. For example, the costs associated with upgrading drinking water infrastructure to meet standards and achieve acceptable risk levels  might be unaffordable for many smaller communities, towns, marae, rural schools and provincial areas.  

The Government’s review will provide advice on potential options to address this funding challenge towards the end of the year, and it’s really important that engineers are part of this conversation. 

Engineering New Zealand has had a number of meetings with the Department of Internal Affairs, which has been leading this work, and attending workshops they have run to solicit feedback, as well as discussing water issues directly with the Minister, Nanaia Mahuta. DIA have indicated that they would like us to be part of the next steps in the process. 

International experience shows that essential outcomes can be achieved without sharp increases in charges, through economies of scale and improved water management. Consolidated water service provider Scottish Water dramatically improved water service quality while reducing operating costs by 40% – by improving strategic and technical capability, better managing capital and adopting new technology.

The Government intends to expand and enhance regulation of wastewater and stormwater discharges into the environment by introducing national standards, promoting best practice and monitoring and reporting on regional performance. This is a good start but it’s important that wastewater and stormwater become fully regulated, alongside drinking water.

Cabinet will further consider the scope, roles and institutional form of the regulator later in the year. This will include whether to include all three waters within a single regulator or create separate entities.