New Zealand’s Drinking Water Standards are to be upgraded in the wake of the Havelock North Inquiry but another Inquiry recommendation for mandatory chlorination is still on hold.

Health Minister Dr David Clark announced this week that changes are to be made to the standards to more routinely monitor for faecal contamination of drinking water and to also step up the level of bacteria count testing required for routine monitoring

The changes follow the Havelock North Inquiry into the country’s worst ever waterborne disease outbreak – when  more than 5,000 people were brought down with gastric illness in  August 2016 through animal faecal contamination of the town’s drinking water supplies.

The New Zealand Drinking Standards use levels of E. coli bacteria as an ‘indicator organism’ for whether drinking water has been contaminated by human or animal faeces. The current standards (that were revised in 2008) require compliance monitoring for E. coli at least three monthly for water supplies serving populations more than 5000 and just yearly for populations under 5000.

Clark said many of the changes he was making, which would take effect on 1 March 2019, were clarifications or corrections, “but there are two changes which will significantly improve the ability to test and respond to the presence of harmful bacteria such as E.coli”.

“The first requires water suppliers to routinely monitor the total amount of coliform bacteria in water. A high reading doesn’t necessarily mean drinking-water is unsafe, but can serve as an indicator of potential issues.

“The other change I am considering is about testing for E.Coli. At the moment drinking-water suppliers test to determine if E. Coli is present in water. They then carry out a second test if the initial test is positive. This means a delay of up to two days before authorities know if there is a contamination.

Clark said he was also consulting on the Inquiry recommendation to require water suppliers to count the numbers of E. Coli bacteria at the first test point which would eliminate the need to carry out a second follow-up test.

Chlorination decision put off until mid-next year at earliest

But another recommendation from the Havelock North Inquiry, which was released late last year for mandatory treatment (chlorination) of public water supplies is still to be decided on by Cabinet and is being tied up in the Three Waters Review that covers not only drinking water but waste water and storm water.

Interim recommendations from the Havelock North Inquiry released last year saw the Director-General of Health issue a formal statement under the Health Act 1956 recommending treatment of any untreated drinking water supplies.

The majority of previously untreated supplies are now being disinfected with chlorine (although some suppliers – like Christchurch City Council – intend this to be a temporary measure). Other interim measures have included updated training for statutory officers with a focus on compliance and enforcement, and updating drinking water guidance materials for suppliers.

The Cabinet Paper released by the Health Minister this week, Future state of the three waters system: regulation and service delivery, says in April 2018 Cabinet invited the Ministers of Finance, Local Government and Health to report back on other Inquiry recommendations including the mandatory residual treatment of drinking water (such as chlorination) and mandatory full compliance with drinking water standards by networked suppliers.

“Advice to Cabinet on these matters is dependent on proposals for system-wide reform of the drinking water regulatory regime and a new risk management regime for sources of drinking water, and will therefore occur in June 2019,” says the paper.

Clark said the paper provided the public with a view into work being carried out by the Government on improving all of our water systems

“A comprehensive review of the Standards is also being carried out, led by an independent Drinking-Water Advisory Committee. I expect proposed changes from this review to be released for public consultation by mid-2019,” said Clark.

He added that the first reading of the Health (Drinking Water) Amendment Bill earlier this month was also seen by the Government as a step toward removing regulatory barriers to allow improvements to drinking-water safety.

“This Bill will allow the Government and drinking-water sector to be more proactive and future focused, as well as make it easier for more work to be done to implement the recommendations of the Havelock North Inquiry,” Clark said.

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