11 Apr 2019

Regulator could help solve Martinborough's water woes

8:57 am on 11 April 2019

A second bacterial infection within months in Martinborough's water supply has sparked a call for the government to move quickly to set up an independent drinking water regulator.

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Photo: Michael Heim/ 123rf

On Tuesday night the South Wairarapa District Council issued a boil water notice for Martinborough after E coli was detected during routine sampling of its water supply.

The earlier alert occurred in February shortly before one of the district's most popular events, the Martinborough Fair.

Water New Zealand, a not-for-profit organisation, which promotes the sustainable management and development of New Zealand's waterways, is calling on the government to set up an independent drinking water regulator.

Its principal water quality advisor Jim Graham said a regulator would have the power to enforce legislation relating to water standards and to take action where necessary.

"Enforcement orders and compliance orders where they could require a water supplier to take certain action, right through to the very drastic step of prosecution," he said.

"If you look at other jurisdictions like the UK, prosecution of water suppliers occurs whenever they see a breach of the standards. Even things like not meeting their targets for reducing water loss has resulted in prosecutions and significant fines."

Businesses pay high price

Martinborough's water woes have already proven costly for businesses in the town and those losses now look set to rise even further.

Adam Newell, who runs the Martinborough Hotel's Union Square Bistro said the previous E coli outbreak cost his business thousands, as it has had to bring in large quantities of bottled water, along with buying ice for drinks and products like oysters.

He said it was also a disaster from a tourism point of view.

"Would you go to Greytown for lunch or to Martinborough for some poo in your water?"

"The town as a whole is getting this terrible reputation that we just can't fix stuff and it's not important to us and we're at the coal face," he said.

"Sure it's difficult for the council, but we're the ones the tourists say 'can I drink that water? Has it been boiled?' ... and of course it has, but it just makes life a little bit difficult."

Mr Newell said just a day before the latest boil water notice was issued, businesses in the town had met with the South Wairarapa council and been told the previous water supply problem had been fixed and would definitely not happen again.

He said ironically, he had just been inspected by the council to ensure food safety and hygiene regulations were complied with, but it seemed to play by different rules itself.

"I have to jump through hoops over everything I do and they'd do something if I did something [wrong] and poisoned people," he said.

"They're a supplier. If I had a supplier that was giving me dodgy chicken or dodgy fish, I'd send it back and I'd get something else and a credit, but with them, there's nothing you can do."

Kaikoura also still has a boil water notice in place and Mr Graham from Water New Zealand said the latest problems were a sign of the urgent need for a water regulator to be established.

He said it appeared lessons had not been learnt from Havelock North's water crisis in 2016, which made thousands of residents ill and caused the deaths of three people.

"There's regularly problems with the detection of E coli in drinking water supplies and it simply shouldn't happen," Mr Graham said.

"The risk is that we have another event like we had at Havelock North and the outcome of that event was just disastrous and very tragic for the families involved."

The South Wairarapa District Council is expected to update its boil water notice for Martinborough later this morning.

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