Water Infrastructure – A Local Problem and a National Challenge

Water infrastructure continues in 2018 to be a key focus of Local and Central Government.

Living and working in Hawke’s Bay, water is and has been ‘the’ key issue and challenge in the region. For the past few years, Hawke’s Bay has been captured by the debate around all things water. Water storage (the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme), large scale irrigation, the health of our rivers and lakes, the Havelock North water crisis and the ongoing compliance challenges faced by the Waipawa wastewater treatment plant have been the key areas of focus. At TPG we have been at the forefront of a number of water projects both locally and nationwide with our Local Government clients.

Through the recent election and under the new Government, irrigation and water storage has been, and continues to be, a bed of thorns. Statistics NZ reports we receive some 608 billion m³ of water annually, yet only use 11 billion m³, much of which is not used well.

Last week we saw a small recharge irrigation scheme in Gisborne, conceived under the National led Government, receive funding from the new Government’s regional development scheme. The funding announcement came with a clear message from the Government that it will not support any of the “uber mega irrigation schemes”. It seems large scale water storage and irrigation development will continue to face challenges.

The importance and state of New Zealand’s existing water infrastructure, referred to as ‘three waters’ has dominated the public spotlight through water shortages, contamination, natural disasters, project cost overruns and compliance and performance issues. I purchased a house in Havelock North the week that the water crisis hit and, surrounded by bottled water and uncertainty over what was spouting from my taps, I didn’t feel like I was living in a first world country.

It is somewhat of a challenge to grasp the situation that New Zealand finds itself in. Water is a basic core resource. It is also a plentiful and strategic asset in New Zealand.

Last year I attended a water symposium hosted by Local Government New Zealand. A key take-home point for me was an honest but unsurprising admission by Local Government attendees regarding the root cause of water problems. The general consensus seemed to be that political pressure to maintain low increases in rates coupled with prioritising higher profile civic amenity projects was to blame. Meanwhile adequate funding for renewal, replacement and growth of three water infrastructure has taken a back seat.

The recent Government review of three water services identified a myriad of issues associated with ensuring that three water assets meet the test of resilience, climate change and provide for future growth.  These issues are across the board from asset information, management, compliance, to the skills, capabilities and capacity for project delivery. Needless to say, a reform of the water industry is a necessity and well overdue.

Pleasingly Government has moved swiftly to identify the key issues and is working to develop solutions which, where necessary, will provide for the reform the industry requires. We will continue to closely follow progress and work with our Local Government clients to provide specialist capability and capacity to support the successful delivery of modern water services and infrastructure.