Boiling frustration at Reefton’s water woes

Source: Q and A

Some residents are calling Reefton’s boil water notice “ridiculous” with even local councillors saying the water is safe to drink. The notice has been in place for two years despite the fact there’s been no detection of E. coli in that time.

The town has been plagued by various water issues over the years and like many places around the country the ageing infrastructure is the main cause of the problems.

Buller District Councillor and Inangahua Community Board chairman John Bougen says locals have become used to it. “All of our water infrastructure here is at least 80 years old. It's been patched and mended and sort of fixed up over the years but the basic infrastructure was shot”.

The precautionary boil water notice, put in place in 2020, means residents are advised to boil or filter their water before consuming it.

Bougen says while he often boils the water, most people in town don’t bother. “I can assure you that there's barely a local in town that hasn't been drinking from the tap over the last two years”.

When Q+A visited the town the vast majority of residents said they no longer boil their water, or never did in the first place. One resident, who didn’t want to be identified, said she was immunocompromised so boiled the water as she couldn’t afford to get sick. She questioned why she was paying full rates when for the last few years she hasn’t been able to get a glass of water out of her own tap.

For businesses though, it’s a different story. Health and safety rules for those who deal with food and beverages means they often aren’t able to use the water from the tap. One business said they’re using bottled water to wash dishes and make bread.

Dawson’s Hotel has bottled water in the room for guests and at the restaurant too. Co-owner Helen McKenzie says each large water container costs $7.50 so it adds up.

“We are buying in a lot of water for our guests. So we order approximately between six and 10, 10 litre containers of water a week”.

McKenzie questioned why the precautionary boil water notice is still in place. “I think it's a little ridiculous really… I think if we've got clear readings we should be able to allow people to drink out of our taps”.

Prior to 2020 there had been a number of E. coli detections over the years which meant the town would be on a temporary boil water notice until it was resolved. Following a detection of E. coli in early 2020 the precautionary boil water notice was put in place indefinitely.

The water is tested weekly at multiple sites around town and since the initial detection there’s been no E. coli in the water.

Buller District Councillor Dave Hawes says he believes the notice should be lifted and the water is safe to drink. “Absolutely because the testing shows there's no E. coli in the water. So I can categorically hand on heart say that the water is safe to drink in Reefton. It's ludicrous to say otherwise.”

Over the last two years $1.44 million has been put towards upgrading the town’s most pressing water infrastructure issues. But despite that it’s unlikely the notice will be lifted until the water is chlorinated, something locals are strongly against.

The Government’s new water regulator is Taumata Arowai which in November took over from the Ministry of Health as part of the Thee Waters reforms. Head of regulatory Ray McMillan says prolonged boil water notices, like in Reefton, aren’t ideal.

“That's one of the reasons we can sympathise or empathise with consumers that have or are under current permanent boil water notices. That you do become a bit conditioned to the risk. It's a hassle to always boil your water before you drink it. and that's why we see them as effective short term solutions but they are problematic long term.”

McMillan doesn’t think the situation in Reefton is out of step with the rest of the country. “I think it's probably a similar story across the motu. In that you have, you have quite significant investment needed to upgrade or to maintain and install drinking water infrastructure and maybe a small base to spread that out”.

Buller Council said it’s approaching Three Waters with optimism but still waiting more detail. Buller District Mayor Jamie Cleine says “It is important we consider the reforms on merit and in context of other regulatory changes already in play. It is clear that meeting the expectations of the regulator in the Buller context will become unaffordable unless a new funding mechanism is considered. Three Waters Reform as proposed by the government is one option, however there are alternatives that could be explored.”