• Iain Rabbitts is water and wastewater manager at the professional engineering and design consultancy Harrison Grierson.

There is an immense amount of confusion at present about the three separate issues regarding water - namely, environmental protection, providing safe drinking water, and charging for water.

They seem to be interchangeable and all part of the same problem in people's minds. But they are not. The touch points between each of these issues are few and for the most part, unimportant.

Paying for water

Firstly, the water bottling companies normally treat the water they take. They have to pay for the infrastructure to remove it and they need to get resource consent. This water is not free to them - they need to make a substantial investment to get the water out of the ground. This means investing in the communities where those plants are. What they do not have to pay is any kind of levy or tax for the water they take. Saying that they take the water for free is wrong.

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Secondly, we do pay for treated water in Auckland. If you are going to charge a levy on the water taken from the river or lake, this would then have to be added to our water charge.

We do not pay for the water as it comes out of the Waikato River or the Hunua Dams. We pay for it after it has been treated and piped through thousands of kilometres of pipes to our homes.

This is completely different from paying for water coming direct out of an aquifer. There is confusion about what is being charged for.

The MP for Napier, Stuart Nash, wants to put a levy on water abstracted from the aquifer. Fine, but how does this help the residents of Havelock North and the poor water they receive from their taps? It doesn't, and this is why this issue is unrelated to the provision of safe drinking water.

Do we need to pay for safe drinking water that comes from our taps? Absolutely, because there is a cost to get from what comes out of the ground, river or lake to make it safe and get it to our taps. How is this related to environmental protection? It isn't.

Provision of safe drinking water

Why are people surprised that the Havelock North water contamination occurred? Simply because they assumed that the water coming out of the tap was safe to drink. Not an unfair assumption, in my view.

But this did not happen in Havelock North due to a failure of the Resource Management Act or unforeseen environmental contamination. It happened because, when that contamination occurred, Hastings District Council had no protection in place to prevent a widespread infection occurring. It happened because the provision of safe drinking water was not left in the hands of people with know-how, but in the hands of politicians.

Remember, even the bottling companies treat their water, so why wouldn't Hastings District Council?

How is this related to what we charge for water out of the ground or from our rivers and lakes, and protection of our environment? It isn't.

Environmental contamination

New Zealand has a 100 per cent pure, clean, green image.

We all know the reality of this but overseas our image is still one of wilderness and beautiful places.

Agriculture is a mainstay of our economy and has been for more than a century. For us to now start accusing the industry that built New Zealand of wilful environmental vandalism is uncalled for and unfair. We have all had a part in making our environment what it is.

I don't know of anyone in New Zealand who wants to make our environment worse. Most people are ignorant of the impact that they have on the environment.

When the rubbish is collected from outside your house each week, where do you think it goes? When you start your car in the morning, where do you think all the waste products from burning petrol or diesel go? We all have an impact and therefore we must all as a nation take responsibility for where we are.

How is this related to provision of safe drinking water or what we should charge for water? The reality is that it is not.

Conclusions

We have three separate, unrelated (almost) issues:

a) Should we charge for untreated waters from our aquifers, rivers and lakes?

b) What do we need to change for us to be able to turn on a tap and get safe drinking water every time?

c) What more are we willing to do to protect our environment?

Let's start treating them as separate issues and stop muddying the waters with spurious connections between things that are essentially unconnected.