By Nigel Billings, Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor
When the Water Services Bill first appeared in early 2021 alarm bells rang loudly at Federated Farmers.
The Bill proposed that all suppliers of drinking water to domestic dwellings, excepting those that just supply themselves, would in future be classified and their water supply regulated. Suppliers would be required to register the details of their scheme, however small, with a new water regulator Taumata Arowai, and demonstrate compliance with a myriad of standards by developing a Water Safety Plan.
That meant pulling tens of thousands of farm water supply schemes into a new regulatory framework, with all the form filling, angst and risk that comes with intrusive new rules.
For farming communities already beaten down by new regulations of every kind, to describe the Water Services Bill as a horror show would be an understatement. A Feds member advisory generated hundreds of telephone calls from angry and worried people, and a member survey got more than a thousand responses with some mighty colorful comments (see opposite page).
It didn’t take much to settle on a point of view about this. There’s really no evidence of a problem with rural drinking water schemes needing a response of this magnitude. In rural localities schemes are frequently run by volunteers, the water they supply is often free, and local conditions are known with testing of the water geared to that. In other words, classic rural, fit-for-purpose solutions getting good drinking water to people that need it.
Federated Farmers ran a powerhouse campaign to get suppliers of drinking water to fewer than 50 people exempted from the requirements of the Bill. We argued that there’s nothing broke needing fixing here, and that onerous regulations may well have the perverse effect of folks disconnecting their schemes and going to rainwater tanks for each house
We argued too that government doesn’t really understand what it’s getting itself into; the sheer number of suppliers, by the Water Services Bill’s definition, is at the least over 100,000. Added to that is the huge variety of rural schemes, springs, bores, rainwater tanks – what’s the cost of regulating all that?
Our campaign was grand and strong, but we and the hundreds of farmers who submitted, couldn’t turn back government’s “whole of system” ideology. Feds managed to get the timeframe for registration of small schemes pushed out from one to four years, compliance from five to seven years, and what we were told by the Minister of Local Government that a simpler approach called an “acceptable solution” would be a way of complying without the need to develop a comprehensive water safety plan.
With the Water Services Bill enacted in late 2021, amended as above, we are left dealing with the trimmings. A principle in the Act that the degree of regulation should be proportional to the scale and complexity of the water supply has given rise to Taumata Arowai’s efforts to develop different approaches to compliance for schemes supplying fewer than 50 people, and those between 50 and 500.
Federated Farmers was assured right through all this that regulation would be developed that would be simple for small suppliers, would embrace end point treatment for agricultural schemes – so water wouldn’t need to be expensively treated at source; the whole thing would be as easy as falling off a log. We participated in a working group that could comment on the development of acceptable solutions, but early drafts failed to impress.
What was ultimately published for consultation has had the same chilling effect on rural suppliers as the Water Services Bill when it was first rolled out.
Within the many pages there is a series of water supply categories such as on-demand, spring and bore, trickle feed, and roof water. There are general rules for everybody all the way up to municipals, then quality assurance rules which can be followed by suppliers to less than 50 people or between 50 and 500.
Then there’s the acceptable solutions, behemoths of things, for rural agricultural, spring and bore, and roof water-based schemes. Here things get tricky. The amount of testing and record-keeping required is substantial. Trickle feed systems must follow the rural agricultural solution regardless of the number of people supplied, and that’s the only way for these supplies – endemic to the rural landscape – to avoid chlorination and run the risk of chlorine getting into the farm water.
We got a ton of feedback from members to our communications on the rules and solutions, none of it positive. Our comprehensive and detailed 75 page submission (readers can find it on the Feds’ website) pulled no punches on the potential unintended consequences of all this, particularly the disconnection of households to avoid cost and risk. If the schemes’ original purpose was to supply stock water, there’s a fair chance that many will return to that.
The other elephant in the room is cost. The cost in time for suppliers, the cost of testing and finding an accredited laboratory, of the high spec componentry required to comply, and the keeping of manuals – including standard operating procedures for everything down to clearing leaves from gutters – will be preclusive for many rural schemes.
If you’re a supplier of human drinking water on a small scale, be assured Feds has your back on this. We’re pushing mighty hard for simplification, lower costs, and genuine pathways away from chlorination. We’re trying to retain the goodwill that has underpinned the successful supply of water to rural folk for generations.