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Towns with chlorine-free water want exemptions from new drinking water standards

Towns with chlorine-free water are hoping to get exemptions from tough new drinking water standards expected to be imposed by a new watchdog.

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Reaction to the Government’s planned new water watchdog has been mixed. Source: 1 NEWS

Reaction to the Government's plans for more control over drinking, waste and stormwater in the wake of the Havelock North contamination crisis has been mixed.

Ageing infrastructure, polluted rivers and unsafe drinking water are all muddying our vision of clean, safe water.

"We all have high expectations for water quality in New Zealand. It is our brand after all and so it is really important that we do deliver the outcome. That requires investment," said Steven Selwood of Infrastructure New Zealand.

The Three Waters review has recommended a watchdog to monitor and enforce drinking water standards nationwide.

National's local government spokesperson Jacqui Dean says there are questions still to be answered.

"What we don't know, and we are a long way off knowing, is what that compliance means. Does it in fact cover every drinking water supplier, because there are some private water suppliers which cover one or two residences," she said.

It's likely to mean compulsory chlorination, unless councils can clear a high bar to prove water is safe.

Communities in places like Christchurch and Hawke's Bay strongly oppose compulsion.

Christchurch's Mayor, Lianne Dalziel, says the council is working hard to make sure their water is safe and will also fight hard for an exemption.

"If the people of Christchurch felt that central government was going to impose an unreasonable standard on Christchurch that would result in a requirement from above to chlorinate our water, then I think the reaction would be very, very poor indeed," she said. 

It's estimated 34,000 people get sick from unsafe drinking water every year. And the cost of ensuring all our water is safe would be about $500 million.

One of the big concerns though is that when that cost is spread across the country, smaller communities will face a much higher burden of those costs.

The price to fix ageing waste and stormwater infrastructure and adapt to climate change is estimated to be over $5 billion.

One proposal is to force more councils to work together and maximise new technology to cut costs.

"There's a very strong case for the Government to be looking at centralisation, in fact consolidation. And that could be anywhere from, say, from half a dozen or so water providers across the country to potentially the Scottish model of one," Steven Selwood said. 

Councils will have five years to adjust to the new regulations - but many will still be searching for solutions to pay for it.