Taumata Arowai – a small smart regulator with a big job

photo: Taumata Aorwai CEO Bill Bayfield talking to water suppliers in Hokianga

By Bill Bayfield, Taumata Arowai Establishment CEO

Water services regulator Taumata Arowai is about ensuring safe drinking water and improved Three Waters performance for all in Aotearoa.

We are the first pou, pillar, of the Government’s ambitious and transformational reform programme, providing leadership to the Three Waters, particularly in the drinking water sector.

Taumata Arowai became an independent Crown entity in March this year, and will become the new dedicated water services regulator when the Water Services Bill is passed, expected in the second half of this year.

At that time Taumata Arowai will become the new drinking water regulator for the nation (a role currently held by the Ministry of Health), while providing oversight and improving environmental outcomes from our wastewater and stormwater networks.

In short, Taumata Arowai will be a small smart regulator with a big job.

We will enable and support water suppliers through self-service tools and guidance, work across government and local entities to help achieve safe drinking water and begin to provide the same oversight for waste and storm water.

But before we do this, the Water Services Bill that will set out our functions and duties has to become law. Let me tell you about where things are at with this process.

Parliament’s Health Select Committee has recently finished hearing from some 220 of the almost 1000 submitters on the Water Services Bill, including Water New Zealand and many of its members. I want to acknowledge your considerable contribution, putting forward your practical and thoughtful advice to help make the Water Services Bill – and by inference Taumata Arowai - the best they can be.

It has been an informative exercise to read these submissions, which can be found on Parliament’s website.

Most support the intent of the Bill - to provide all in Aotearoa with safe drinking water and better manage waste and stormwater.

In its submission, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) said it had been calling for clear drinking-water standards, and strong enforcement of those standards since 2015, when it published its Three Waters position paper. This was a year before the Havelock North drinking water contamination.

“That position paper highlighted the urgent need for improved regulatory frameworks and enforcement of the standards …”

LGNZ also “strongly supports the requirement to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai and a commitment by the Taumata Arowai Māori Advisory Board to develop and maintain a framework that provides advice and guidance on interpretation”.

Most submissions also contained varying degrees of concern and anxiety, especially from te ao Māori, local government and rural communities.

I certainly heard about these issues first-hand on my recent visit to the Tai Tokerau, and at the Three Waters forums in Christchurch and Rotorua, all very different experiences.

There’s limited understanding about the Water Services Bill, and a good deal of confusion about what it will mean for various stakeholders.

Which is not surprising when you consider the background to the drafting of the Bill. It happened in a pre-Covid era. In fact, it was before the beginning of central and local government’s joint work on Three Waters service delivery reform, which has the potential to dramatically change the landscape.  

The original modelling for the Bill made assumptions of 5000 small unregistered water suppliers. A recent Beca analysis found this figure was more like 75,000 across the country. What we now know is that about 800,000 New Zealanders – almost one in five – get their drinking water from unregulated supplies.

So there is no denying the challenges ahead.

The Health Select Committee now has two extra months to factor in feedback from the submissions, with report back due in mid-August. This is key to making the Bill robust, practical and workable for all water suppliers – be they Watercare, Grey District Council, the local marae or hill country station.

I don’t have to persuade you about the urgent need for these drinking water reforms. You see it daily in media headlines. Lead contamination in Otago, boil water notices in Carterton. In fact, 32 communities across the motu currently have permanent boil water notices.

Meanwhile, everywhere councils are grappling with aging water infrastructure and the prospect of significant rate hikes to fix them.

The genesis for Taumata Arowai was the shocking 2016 outbreak of gastroenteritis in Havelock North from campylobacter in the town’s drinking water. More than 5000 fell ill from this systemic and quality failure, with four deaths attributed. The subsequent inquiry recommended a national drinking water regulator. We cannot lose sight of this.

Taumata Arowai, as a regulator, will be critical to lifting the performance of our drinking water, waste and storm water systems and capability.

We will lead the drinking water sector, using a regulatory approach taken from internationally recognised “best practice” models, merging them with our unique Aotearoa approach which will be set out in the Water Services Act.

Our model will be based on the principles of Te Mana o te Wai, the concept recognising that protecting the health of water also protects the health and wellbeing of the community and wider environment.

Where drinking water safety is at risk, we will tailor our approach, using a mix of education, compliance and enforcement tools. We will work with suppliers to provide guidance, and review ourselves to ensure we are consistent and taking a proportionate approach.

Our legislation, particularly the Water Services Act – when passed - will allow us to use new compliance and enforcement tools to make sure drinking water is safe for consumers and the performance of our waste and storm water management systems is improved.  We will also engage with people in the water services sector, to influence better water services for all in Aotearoa.

Those we will engage with will include whānau, hapū and iwi Māori, councils, drinking water suppliers and community groups.

Our legislation will provide Taumata Arowai with the authority (compliance tools) to require suppliers to fix things for safe drinking water, and the power (enforcement tools) to protect others from behaviour that puts health at risk.

Until we see the final shape of the Bill, I can’t expand too much further. But myself and our new leadership team will continue to communicate with you – including through webinars – to explain how we are going to work, and to answer your questions.

In the meantime, I urge you to go to our website taumataarowai.govt.nz to find out more about our organisation and top-line information for water suppliers.

View in our latest Water publication.