By Anusha Bradley, for RNZ

Some Havelock North residents say radical proposals to improve the safety of the country's drinking water will do little to restore their trust.

Four people died and 5000 people fell ill after the town's water supply was contaminated with campylobacter in 2016.

In a bid to prevent this happening again the Government has announced sweeping changes to the way drinking water will be managed, wresting control from local authorities and putting it in the hands of a new central authority.

Advertisement

It's not enough to convince Havelock North resident Shirley Tobeck to trust her water again.

"I'm not sure if people will ever be that confident again after that. A lot of children had a lot of illness and one of the parents' grandmothers actually died."

Havelock North resident Anna Lorck's 8-year-old daughter was one of the first to get sick.

"At the time we didn't know what it was . . . until we started to realise as more and more people got sick what was going on."

Lorck said many locals still fear the water.

"People just don't trust the water. People are still buying their water, people are still going to pump stations and filling up bottles with water. Many people in our community would love to have chlorine-free water."

In a bid to stop another such outbreak the new national regulator will have the "final say" on drinking water, Health Minister David Clark said.

It will cover all water suppliers, apart from individual households who supply their own, setting standards as well as having monitoring and enforcement powers.

Advertisement

He told Morning Report today that councils will need to prove their water is safe to drink, or they will have no choice but to chlorinate it which was the cheapest option.

Former Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule said the move to a regulator was a much-needed step. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
Former Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule said the move to a regulator was a much-needed step. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

He said the regulator will set high standards for local water supplies and will be able to force councils to treat their water.

Clark said the changes could come at a cost to ratepayers and the government will be looking to handle things in an equitable way.

Councils could lower costs by working together - in the Hawke's Bay region this was happening already and South Wairarapa and Wellington were also looking at ways to join forces on ensuring a quality water supply.

Asked if it would mean higher costs for rural New Zealanders and would they receive a subsidy, Clark said: "We are going to be working through these things in an equitable way."

Tukituki MP Lawrence Yule, who was mayor of Hastings at the time of the campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North, said the move to a regulator was a much-needed step.

But he questioned how much power this new agency might have.

"Is the regulator going to have decision-making powers about how water is treated? Is chlorine going to be put in every part of New Zealand's drinking water system, or not?

"We just don't know the answer to that yet," Yule said.

Another question being pondered by local authorities was how much the new regime might cost them to implement.

Bringing the country's ageing drink water infrastructure up to standards recommended by the Havelock North inquiry will cost between $300 million and $500 million, the government estimates.

This could swell as unregulated water suppliers such as marae and groups of homes which share a bore are brought under the new regulations.

Local Government New Zealand president Dave Cull said a national watchdog is something his organisation has been pushing for for years but he was concerned how the smaller players might fare.

"The cost of bringing those up to standard could be substantial and they may be in remote locations. It is going to be an issue who pays for the enhanced infrastructure."

Water New Zealand chief executive John Pfahlert said he would like to see central government pay for some of it.

"In areas with rural marae, schools or water supplies, I suspect there is going to be some expectation the government might provide some sort of shared subsidy scheme to assist small communities to get up to speed with the new regulations."

"We'll know by the end of the year to what extend the government is prepared to do that."

Hastings District Council has already spent $50 million upgrading its drinking water infrastructure in the wake of the Havelock North outbreak.

Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst said it and four other Hawke's Bay councils were considering ways to work together to reduce future costs.

Several options would be presented in the New Year, including ones modelled on Wellington Water and Auckland's Watercare, she said.

A Water Services Bill will be introduced before the end of the year, with possible enactment in the middle of next year, and water suppliers will have up to five years to adjust to the new regulations. - RNZ