Whanganui district has this year to decide the future of its water infrastructure.
The Three Waters Reform Programme is a Government proposal to transform the way council-owned three waters services - stormwater, wastewater and drinking water - are managed.
Under the proposal, the three waters would be handed over to a regional entity and funded centrally rather than by local councils.
Drinking water, stormwater and wastewater infrastructures were subject to a Government inquiry after the gastroenteritis outbreak in Havelock North in 2016. The inquiry found 20 per cent of New Zealand's local authorities were failing to meet the standards.
In 2019, the Government agreed to create a Water Services Regulator to administer and enforce a new drinking water regulatory system, while contributing to improved environmental outcomes from wastewater and stormwater networks.
The Taumata Arowai – Water Services Regulator Act, passed in July 2020, established a unit created within the Department of Internal Affairs.
A month later Whanganui District Council received a $6.32 million share of the Government's $761 million post-Covid-19 stimulus package issued to local authorities for maintaining and improving three waters infrastructure.
Money has been allocated to upgrading the water supply to Sedgebrook St, Parkes Ave and Lincoln, Ngatarua and Mosston roads.
Other work is likely to include connecting Fordell to the town water supply, putting a new water pipe under the Cobham Bridge and upgrading stormwater pipes. All the work will need to be completed by March 2022.
The three-year Three Waters Reform Programme to address the challenges facing council-owned and operated three waters services was launched and Cabinet reconfirmed its commitment to the programme in December.
The current phase of the Three Waters Reform Programme involves engagement with councils and iwi/Māori via a number of workshops and hui-ā-motu around the country that aim to seek feedback from each region.
Whanganui District councillor Josh Chandulal-MacKay attended a recent Palmerston North Three Waters Reform Programme workshop and said he had mixed feelings.
Chandulal-MacKay is a member of the Local Government NZ young elected members committee and sees many benefits to the planned Government reforms, although he was not certain they are the best thing for Whanganui.
"Looking at the wider picture I think macro-management of a standardised system could be a good thing for the country as a whole," he said.
"On the other hand when I stood for election I pledged to do my best for Whanganui.
"As a council, we will need to decide whether we want to opt-out before the end of the year and it seems like a short timeframe for a big decision like that."
Councillor Alan Taylor said he came away from the workshop with similar reservations.
"It just seems like it is moving too fast," he said.
"I would not feel comfortable taking part in making a decision without a lot more information."
Councillor James Barron also attended an earlier Three Waters workshop in New Plymouth and said he would need to know a lot more before committing to a council decision.
"I have a lot of questions and think there is still a lot of devil in the detail to be worked through," he said.
"We don't know what the regional entities might look like. How will they be structured? Will they be managed by elected representatives? "
The Three Waters Reform team and Taumata Arowai have conducted a series of hui to engage with iwi, hapū and Māori throughout the country and reported that there was resounding support for a stronger partnership between tangata whenua and the Crown.
Whanganui's Sonny Barlow has attended a number of the Three Waters hui, including the recent Palmerston North workshop, out of personal interest.
"I know that my authority to speak is likely to be questioned and there will be those who oppose my point of view but I'm okay with that," Barlow said.
"I have taken a strong interest in these reform proposals and if others have strong views, they should share them as well and that will get the discussion going because everyone should be talking about this."
Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall said Te Mana o te Wai will be an essential element of any decisions about the Three Waters Reforms.
"There will need to be very robust discussions with tangata whenua as part of the decision process," he said.
"We need to think in terms of Te Mana o te Wai along with the concerns of all Whanganui residents."
McDouall said he appreciates that the high costs of upgrades are almost impossible for some rural local authorities with a small number of ratepayers.
"Some of them would be looking at a cost of around $8000 per household for upgrades so it is understandable that they would welcome a centrally-funded system," he said.
Whanganui District Council is one of the few local authorities in the country with a recently upgraded wastewater treatment plant and McDouall said it would not be acceptable to become part of a regional entity that would see Whanganui taxpayers funding larger cities that need expensive upgrades to their infrastructure.
It is also not clear about what would happen with regard to the $40m wastewater treatment plant completed in 2016.
Independent Three Waters steering committee chairman Brian Hanna said the primary purpose of the central and local government partnership approach is to ensure the reform process is informed by the expertise and experience of the local government sector, while also taking account of the expertise and interests of iwi/Māori.
As a former mayor of Waitomo District Council, Hanna said he understood that councils were facing a tough process.
"Councils will be facing quite a bit of angst over how to best serve their constituents.
"Every council has different considerations and challenges with their three waters infrastructures and it is a huge responsibility. Some councils are facing eye-watering upgrade costs."
Hanna said the decision about whether local authorities can change their minds about whether to opt-out of the programme at a later stage is still a "live question".
"If there is the option to opt-in at a later stage it would probably be quite a few years away because the parameters will have been set."
Hanna said the next phase of the programme will be a public information and education campaign before Cabinet decisions on reform proposals mid-year.
Nga Tangata Tiaki o Whanganui Trust chairman Gerrard Albert was not available for comment this week.