Taranaki Regional Council says potential problems with the country's management of wastewater and stormwater systems have been "poorly defined and inadequately researched," and more work is needed before the government imposes national solutions.
Council staff say a November Cabinet paper critical of regional councils' management of wastewater systems is wrong to say there are no guidelines on the safe production of biosolids from sewage sludge. Nor do they believe a claimed lack of enforcement action by councils, and a lack of investment, is borne out in Taranaki.
"There is much more compliance monitoring and enforcement activity being undertaken by the sector than some critics have been aware of," officers say in a report to the council's policy and planning committee meeting earlier this month.
"The Cabinet paper suggests that on the basis of the statements it presents, there is a clear justification for national regulatory intervention in wastewater management. Officers are clear, on an evidential basis, that there is in fact no such justification within the Taranaki context."
The government announced a review of ways to improve the management of drinking water, stormwater and wastewater in the wake of a 2016 water contamination incident in Havelock North which affected thousands of people. The first recommendations are expected in mid-2019.
But the challenge of funding improvements across all three water types, particularly for smaller rural communities, is stark. Upgrading 145 publicly-owned wastewater schemes, which typically serve fewer than 5000 people and discharge to lakes and rivers, could cost $1.4 billion to $2.1 billion, GHD and Boffa Miskell said in October.
Local Government New Zealand has urged the government to focus on drinking water first, and allow new freshwater management standards set in 2017 to run their course through to 2025.
The November Cabinet paper was critical of regional councils' monitoring and management of wastewater systems, citing a lack of formal enforcement action and questioning the technical capacity of some.
It proposed a new regulatory framework that could include setting national minimums for effluent discharges and targets for wastewater overflows, good practice guidance for re-use of wastewater biosolids and public reporting standards for compliance and environmental performance.
A new inter-agency three waters regulator – taking in the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Health – was also proposed.
Taranaki is one of the country's wealthiest regions.
Council staff noted that it already reports annually and publicly on the performance of the region's wastewater treatment plants. Compliance monitoring includes regular ecological surveys, while the dispersion performance of outfalls and their structural integrity needs to be certified.
In the past five years the regional council has issued two abatement notices and two infringement notices against local councils for breaches of their obligations around wastewater. In 2014 South Taranaki District Council was fined $115,000 for mismanaging the Eltham treatment facility.
Regional council staff also listed projects upgrading wastewater systems at 15 Taranaki communities in recent years, including piping waste from Bell Block, Inglewood and Oakura to New Plymouth for secondary treatment. Wastewater is also now piped from Eltham to Hawera for secondary treatment.
They said the region has no "bow wave" of near-term consent renewals, and nor are any of the region's treatment facilities among the high number the Cabinet paper said were operating on expired consents.
Council staff said the paper was also "simply incorrect" to say there are no procedures for safe production of biosolids from sewage sludge. The Ministry of Health has guidelines and Water New Zealand issued a good practice guide in 2016, their report said.
They recommended the council confirm that an evidential basis for the government's proposal is "not apparent" in Taranaki, and that that position should form the basis for further engagement with the Ministry for the Environment on its plans for regulating wastewater management.