The Far North District Council will decide next week whether to opt into a Government-led reorganisation of water, wastewater and stormwater services.
The Government announced $761 million in funding for drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure upgrades last month, funding being conditional on councils joining a reform programme designed to consolidate the operational and governance arrangements for water services.
FNDC members and staff have attended a number of meetings about the proposal since the announcement, and staff have prepared options for the councillors to consider at their meeting on Thursday next week.
Councils that choose to join tranche 1 of the programme will have to share information about their Three Waters infrastructure. When the Government has completed more detailed policy work, participating councils will need to decide whether to take part in the binding second and third tranches of the programme.
Local Government New Zealand has welcomed the introduction of the Government's Water Services Bill, legislation that will detail the powers of the recently formed drinking water regulator Taumata Arowai.
LGNZ has been calling for clear drinking water standards, and strong enforcement of those standards, since 2015, when it published the Three Waters position paper, a year before the Havelock North contamination. That position paper highlighted the need for improved regulatory frameworks and enforcement of the standards.
The Water Services Bill is the third pillar in the Government's reform programme, which also comprises establishing Taumata Arowai as the regulator, and proposing new multi-regional statutory entities to deliver Three Waters services.
"In countries around the world, best practice is that a regulator sets clear standards, and strong enforcement action backs those up. Then it is up to the asset owners and providers to meet those standards, or face enforcement," LGNZ president Dave Cull said.
"Unfortunately, New Zealand has been a little bit unusual in the fact that we didn't have clear standards or rigorous enforcement, and that has contributed greatly to a system failure."
The Government's own Havelock North contamination review was damning of the previous regulatory system, finding that no formal enforcement action was taken by district health boards from when the previous drinking water regime was introduced in 2007, up until 2018.
"LGNZ supports the ambitions of the Government to ensure safe drinking water, and we are working closely with them to ensure this," Cull said.
"We're very pleased to see this long-needed regulator taking shape. It will drive real improvement for New Zealand's drinking water regulation.
"It's fair to say that the vast majority of New Zealanders can turn their taps on at any time and be confident that they will get clean, fresh drinking water, but this regulator will work to lift performance in specific areas."
There would be "affordability challenges" for non-networked supplies in meeting new, higher standards, however.
"Councils need to dedicate their attention to council-owned and -operated supplies. Our preference is that the drinking water regulator is responsible for assessing non-council water networks in the first instance, while councils work to meet the standards of their own networks," he added.
The implications for housing and infrastructure growth also needed to be fully considered.
"Not all growth can be serviced through connections to the council network," he said.
"The Government needs to be clear whether it wants to enable independent non-council networks in the future, or if it seeks to limit growth to where the reticulated council networks are.
"This presents a situation where local government could be the last man standing, putting a significant burden on ratepayers, and therefore making councils very cautious when assessing developments that set up their own network.
"Regardless, Local Government New Zealand is committed to working with the Government on Three Waters reform, and looking at how we can address these questions and improve affordability of improved Three Waters infrastructure that meets higher standards in the future."