Drinking water on councils' minds

Local authorities are keen for a decision on whether they can charge for water bottled for export. Photo : Lynn Grieveson

Both tap water and bottled water are high on the menu for Councils as they tussle with the Government over water quality standards and water allocation.

Local authorities under fire for giving consents to overseas companies wanting to bottle and sell water are waiting for the Government to rule on whether they can start charging for water, but they are also admitting that their previous lobbying against tighter drinking water standards was “probably incorrect”.

LGNZ President Lawrence Yule welcomed the Government taskforce on water allocation, saying a decision needed to be made “once and for all” on whether councils could charge for water.

Currently, councils have to consider a consent application, but cannot charge for the water taken.

“By law they are required to consider a consent application,” said LGNZ CEO Malcolm Alexander. “They can recoup the cost of processing the consent. There is no royalty stream. They cannot impose any sort of tax on it. It’s illegal.”

Public feeling against selling water to bottlers for export is running high. When Ashburton District Council entered into negotiations last year with water bottler NZ Pure Blue to sell part of the Council’s business estate (which came with a resource consent to extract billions of litres of water from the acquifers beneath it) it was presented with a petition of over 40,000 signatures and the threat of legal action and a judicial review.

Yule said the issue needed to be clarified.

“I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting another ten years because it’s all too hard,” he said. “Because if we are not going to charge for water then we are going to have to have different ways of allocating it. That is what the government think tank at the moment is looking at and we will wait with interest for what it comes out with."

Asked about what councils thought, Alexander said there was “a myriad of views within our community” on water pricing, but Yule was more forthcoming.

“If the question is: are we open on pricing for water use? Yes, we are, as part of the mixture of options going forward. We just don’t think we can leave things in limbo as they are at the moment and that’s why we are waiting for this government review to come out with some policy on it.”

“We either once and for all say we are not going to charge for water and we come up with a different policy, or we look at an allocation formula that is a pricing mechanism, something that is going to be part of that. And I think a decision on that will have to be made sooner rather than later.”

Thinking shifts after Hastings crisis

Yule also told the media briefing on Tuesday that, in the wake of the Hastings water contamination crisis, local government was rethinking its past resistance to water quality regulation.

“Clearly you are seeing a fundamental rethink around risk around drinking water, and if you look at what’s happening in the Hutt Valley … and as I understand it there’s also a lift in total coliforms in Christchurch at the moment which can’t be explained since the earthquake as well,” he said.

“So how people manage drinking water has gone to a whole new level following this incident.”

Water testing of the Naenae reservoir in Lower Hutt in April revealed E-coli contamination, resulting in chlorination of the water supply.

LGNZ backed councils opposed to the introduction of higher drinking water standards in 2007 legislation, which replaced a previously largely voluntary regime. Their opposition led to the implementation of the new standards being delayed.

“We advocated on behalf of our [smaller] members, because our members felt it was too aggressive, the approach that was being taken – in hindsight, probably incorrectly – but that’s what we acted on,” Yule said.

“But clearly we asked the regulations to be slowed down, implementation of that. It was quite a strong lobby from our sector.”

Asked if the smaller councils had now shifted in their view, he replied: “Well, they are shifting.”