Environmental / Resource Management

Water Services Act 2021 set to transform water safety in Aotearoa

Parliament has passed the Water Services Bill, which received royal assent on 4 October 2021. The aim of the Water Services Act 2021 (WSA) is to implement the Government’s comprehensive reforms to the regulatory system for drinking water and to improve the regulation and performance of wastewater and stormwater networks. It repeals and replaces Part 2A of the Health Act 1956 and commences 4 October 2023, or earlier by Order in Council.

The main purpose of the WSA is to ensure that drinking water suppliers provide safe drinking water to consumers by way of a drinking water regulatory framework that is consistent with internationally accepted best practice. The WSA’s additional purposes are to:

  • establish a transparent framework for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater and network operators;
  • provide mechanisms for capability among drinking water suppliers and across the wider water services sector; and
  • establish a framework for the continuous and progressive improvement of the quality of water services in New Zealand.

As part of the Government’s wider reforms, the Taumata Arowai – the Water Services Regulator Act 2020 established Taumata Arowai as a Crown entity to provide, among other general functions, a national level administration of the water regulatory system in relation to:

  • drinking water safety, regulation, and risk management, and
  • the environmental performance, management, and regulation of wastewater and stormwater networks.  

The WSA will now give Taumata Arowai the legal authority to carry out its duties.

The WSA contains 5 Parts (Parts 4 and 5 are miscellaneous provisions and amendments to the Local Government Act 2002 respectively). Parts 1 to 3 are set out as follows:

  • Part 1 containing preliminary provisions, including key terms,
  • Part 2 containing provisions relating to supply of drinking water, including in relation to suppliers, safety plans, notifications and record keeping, customer complaints, source water, standards, drinking water supply register, emergency powers, authorisations, laboratory accreditation and testing, statutory management and transfer of operations, and finally review and appeals, and
  • Part 3, contains enforcement provisions and other matters.

Taumata Arowai is at the forefront of changes under the WSA. Among other responsibilities, it will be required to review drinking water safety plans and monitor compliance (including consumer complaints), maintain public consultation in relation to drinking water and other standards, and where necessary, declare a drinking water emergency, if it believes on reasonable grounds that there is a serious risk to public health.

In addition to these key responsibilities, Taumata Arowai is also set to be the central body in terms of notification of water related risks or hazards, appointment of laboratory accredited bodies for testing water supply, reporting back to Taumata Arowai and conducting internal reviews of decisions by Taumata Arowai. In addition, it will have the power to authorise a specified person to make an application for search warrants in relation to drinking water safety plans.

Each year, Taumata Arowai will publish annual drinking water regulation reports, as part of its planning and reporting requirements. It is notable that the WSA now includes as an additional purpose, the “continuous and progressive improvement” of water quality services. Although untested, this new language represents a departure from previous requirements and may represent a continuously evolving minimum standard, above non-regression. This may require ongoing refining and upgrading of water quality services over time according to the latest available information.

The enforcement provisions in Part 3, include specific offences relating to the supply of unsafe drinking water, failure to take immediate action, as well as specific duties relating to notification of risk, provision of sufficient water, registration of drinking water supply, among other specific offences.

Finally, the WSA, contains new provisions about the relationship between Taumata Arowai and local authorities. This includes requirements on information sharing, an obligation on regional councils to publish and provide Taumata Arowai information annually, and a requirement on Taumata Arowai to ensure in its annual report that it includes the extent to which local authorities are complying with the WSA in relation to drinking water.

Local authorities will have specific obligations to make assessments of drinking water, wastewater, and sanitary services and to ensure communities have access to safe drinking water. The WSA defines drinking water network operators as including local authorities (and council-controlled organisations or their subsidiaries) to the extent that they operate a drinking water network or supervise its operation or any aspects thereof. The WSA also contains definitions for stormwater network operators and wastewater network operators, which similarly include local authorities (and council-controlled organisations or their subsidiaries) in relation to stormwater and wastewater networks respectively. Other parties included within these definitions are a department, the New Zealand Defence Force and any person who operates the respective network (or aspects thereof) or on behalf of an organisation, being either a local authority, department or the New Zealand Defence Force.

Taumata Arowai will then be required to monitor and report on the environmental performance of these networks and network operators for the purposes of transparency, identifying and developing advice and guidance, and enabling comparisons between performance in relation to each of those networks.

The WSA represents a key component of the Government’s three water reforms and represents a major milestone in improving the fresh water system in New Zealand.

 

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