Small towns need to stop polluting rivers

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment

Last week we raised the issue of poo in our rivers, and how it is making us sick. As we saw in our review of the Government’s fresh water standards, bacteria from poo is just one of the many issues facing our waterways. These days we mostly hear about nitrogen pollution from dairy cows, because that has been increasing thanks to the expansion of dairy farming. Meanwhile bacteria levels have been falling in our waterways, thanks to dairy farmers fencing waterways and improvements in sewage treatment by factories and in our cities.

However, if we want to swim in our rivers and lakes (which despite the Government’s underwhelming ambition of wadeability, the majority of Kiwis say they want to do) without a high risk of getting sick, then we still have a lot of work to do as a nation. Some rural and provincial sewage schemes are substandard and sheep and beef cows can still wander into our waterways. Bacteria is still an issue for our fresh water and there are no excuses for not dealing with it.

There are three major sources of faeces in our rivers:

  • People – from untreated sewage;
  • Farmed animals – whose poo gets washed into rivers; and
  • Wild animals.

There isn’t much we can do about the last one – except for controlling pests and maybe widening duck shooting season to include other birds such as swans (or in cities, pigeons). Over the next two days we will look in detail at the first two issues – starting with people, before moving on to farm animals.

Soiling our nest

Farmers get a bad rap over their impact on water quality, but in fact the bacteria levels in the rivers around our towns and cities are the highest in the country (some 100 times natural levels). The culprit is clear – human sewage. Sure, farming affects a lot more rivers than towns and cities do, but the fact remains that townies can’t wash their hands of this problem. Our water quality simply shouldn’t be this bad. Proper treatment of sewage removes most of the bacteria from human poo before it is released.

Now the good news. Bacteria levels in the rivers around our towns have been steadily dropping in recent years, particularly in bigger urban areas where sewage treatment plants have been progressively upgraded over the past few decades. However, not all of our septic tanks and sewage treatment plants are up to scratch, particularly in small rural towns where they don’t have the population base needed to pay for an upgrade.

Small towns, big problems…

A recent survey suggests that less than half of provincial and rural councils sewage schemes meet their resource consent conditions. Especially in the areas with falling populations, these smaller councils simply don’t have the rating base to pay for decent sewage schemes. Let’s look at some examples.

Just across the Tararua ranges from Wellington is the rural idyll of the Wairarapa. Yet if you scratch the surface of this lifestyle paradise you will find a load of crap. The Wairarapa has 3 different local councils, all managing their own sewage schemes. The wastewater treatment plants in three towns – Featherston, Greytown and Martinborough are all now operating on expired consents. Meanwhile Carterton have appealed the conditions of their new consent, claiming that the work required is unaffordable and unfeasible.

A study into the Government’s water quality standards in Southland revealed that the town of Winton would face a rate hike of $400-700 per residence in order to get the sewage scheme to a level where the local waterways meet the Government’s standard. The cost in different towns depends on local conditions – Winton faces problems with the nutrients in the wastewater, rather than just E. coli – but this gives you an idea of the scale of the issue. The challenge is greatest in very small communities – Piopio faced a bill of over $4m with just over 200 connected properties. In more remote areas, on-site wastewater system such as septic tanks can also add to the bacteria problem. Many of these are past their used-by date and an upgrade can cost around $15,000 per property.

The impact of a clean-up on industries in some towns is similar. The Alliance meatworks near Invercargill faces a bill north of $25m to ensure the water coming out of their plant is up to scratch. Being a freezing works, bacteria from faeces is one of the issues they face; downstream bacteria levels have been between 1.5 and 34 times allowable levels set by the Regional Council.

You can see why so many small towns are struggling with this issue – sewage upgrades would break the bank because they simply don’t have the rating base to construct a proper scheme. Some businesses could also be threatened. So we are stuck in a deadlock – the Regional Council can’t improve water quality until the towns act, but the action required is a bridge too far for the pockets of local residents and businesses.

What can we do?

How do we resolve this impasse? Barring a nifty new innovation arriving on the scene, there seem to be three options:

  1. We let small towns off the hook, allow them to continue polluting and our waterways end up bearing the brunt of the damage;
  2. We face up to the true costs of living in small towns and push rates up to pay for the sewage treatment they need. This may turn some small towns into ghost towns as people move to places that have the scale to deal with their sewage properly; or
  3. We allow some cross subsidy so that ratepayers in nearby cities help pay for small towns to deal with their sewage.

In setting their water quality standards so low, the Government was effectively choosing #1. The cost of getting waterways around our towns and cities up to swimmable standard would be even higher. This is why we suggested the Government set the bottom line at the swimmable level but allow the community to opt out. This would force a public debate within these communities about whether they are willing to give up on having a swimmable river for the sake of keeping their rates bill down. That is, they would have to put their money where their mouth is – 9 out of 10 people say they want swimmable rivers – but how badly do they want it?

However, as we have seen even setting low standards has not “solved” the issue entirely – some areas still face a large bill for sewage upgrades. Some smaller councils are clearly struggling to fulfill their role on sewage treatment due to lack of scale. Allowing these towns to die is likely to be politically unpalatable, but is the reality facing many small towns right now.

This leaves the final option – cross-subsidising smaller communities. It would be interesting to see how the people of Wellington for example would react to a minor rates hike in order to solve the water quality problems of their Wairarapa playground. Indeed this solution might well happen by default if local authorities are amalgamated as Auckland has done. This issue of cost and scale looks set to come front and centre in the forthcoming amalgamation debate.

Tomorrow we will turn our attention to the other major cause of poo in our waterways – cattle. Meanwhile, you can help raise the profile of this issue by reporting any sewage spills you see in streams using our pollution reporting app.

Small towns need to stop polluting rivers was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.