11 Nov 2022

The gathering stormwaters: Pressure to reduce reforms to just two waters

3:53 pm on 11 November 2022

By Jonathan Milne of Newsroom

Council contractors out clearing stormwater drains in Edgeware, Christchurch, 26 July 2022.

Stormwaters, unlike drinking water and wastewater, don't run through a network of invisible pipes beneath the ground: they include roads and parks and streams. Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittock

After reading more than 6,600 submissions, a select committee today reports back on pleas to remove parks and sports fields and farmers' private stormwaters from the government's ambitious three waters reforms.

In February 1945, with the Nazis in retreat and US troops landed on Iwo Jima in Japan, the Second World War was drawing to an end. After nearly 18-months overseas service, 30-year-old Thomas Faloon received his discharge papers and returned home to the Manawatū.

He and his wife Helen took ownership of a small 5ha block at Milsons Line that, eventually, was required for a stormwater for the new Palmerston North Airport runway. So, under the duress of the Public Works Act, they built a stormwater diversion off Kawau Stream that allowed the subdivision of the land and the construction of nearly 40 new homes.

What little interest the couple still owned was handed down to their son and daughter - and the two have been fighting for compensation ever since.

It was their daughter Jillian Piesse who appeared before Parliament's finance and expenditure select committee to highlight just how complex the ownership and use rights are around the country's stormwaters.

Piesse says the committee, reporting back on the three waters reforms this week, should amend the Water Services Entities Bill to exclude private stormwater diversions.

Hers is one of many arguments, among nearly 6,600 submissions, for the exclusion of some or all of the country's vast and largely unmapped above- and below-ground stormwater networks from the reforms.

Cabinet has already agreed to provide legal protection for existing works in land owned by someone else, and confirm landowners are not responsible for maintenance of network assets they do not own - but they may still be responsible for maintenance of stormwater drainage and overland flow paths.

That's not good enough for Piesse, and it's not good enough for many of the country's 67 city and district councils - raising the question of whether the government may agree to postpone inclusion of stormwaters in its three waters reforms.

With just drinking water and wastewater still included, they would become the two waters reforms.

The challenge is that stormwaters, unlike drinking water and wastewater, don't run through a network of invisible pipes beneath the ground. They include roads and parks and streams. The government has acknowledged it would be nigh-on impossible to have councils managing roads and pavements, but the big new corporations managing the 30cm of gutters in between them.

They are uniquely susceptible to climate change - meaning the assessment of the vulnerability of the country's drainage is changing by the year.

So in June this year, Cabinet confirmed the new corporations would take over services and infrastructure relating to stormwater quality and quantity, including those held by territorial authorities - but not including those related to their role as road-controlling authorities. Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta told colleagues that the decision was modelled on the split between Auckland Council and Auckland Transport, with a clear distinction between transport stormwater and other stormwater responsibilities.

But it doesn't stop there. For instance, council sports fields are designed to soak up excess stormwaters; should their management be handed over to the four new corporations? Mahuta has recommended distinct criteria based on whether an asset's use is predominantly for stormwater, and its criticality to the operation of the stormwater networks and system.

Indeed, rather than acknowledging the extent to which the government has modelled its stormwater reform on Auckland's, that council's detailed 86-page submission is among many to oppose transferring stormwater functions to the new water corporations - at least until there is adequate evidence of the benefits of doing so.

"Distinguishing between stormwater and local park assets and the provisions that manage such areas for differing purposes has been raised as a key operational issue. These areas provide mutual benefit to both stormwater management, biodiversity and recreation outcomes."

So what's in, and what's out? At this stage, the government has decided that the four new water corporations will take overall stewardship of the stormwater system, including the pipelines, culverts and subsoil drains that make up the country's 17,000km reticulated network, and all council drains other than those on the transport corridor.

However, councils would remain responsible for amenities like parks and reserves.

Transport corridor providers including the councils, Waka Kotahi and KiwiRail would remain responsible for their stormwaters. They and private landowners will be responsible for land drainage schemes in rural areas, and overland flow paths.

In addition, iwi, hapu and regional councils would share responsibility when the stormwaters run down rivers and streams.

Many submitters said it was all too hard, in such a tight timeframe - that the government would be better to first tackle the vexed challenges of drinking water and wastewater, then revisit stormwaters later.

* This article was first published on the Newsroom website.

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