Urgent action needed to stop further deaths from contaminated water

By Piripi Taylor

A Māori research scientist has called for a complete overhaul on the way that we test water quality in New Zealand. Dr Leonie Jones (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa) sees pitfalls in our current monitoring methods and says more needs to be done.

Up to 5500 people and at least four deaths were linked to the gastro outbreak in the Havelock North 2yrs ago, caused by campylobacter contamination of the towns drinking water supply. The crisis sparked a government inquiry however urgent changes are needed now according to Dr Leonie Jones of Digital Sensing Ltd.

"Right now we're doing a full chemical sweep but the problem is it's once a month and so we're getting a single shot analysis, we're not getting a comprehensive diagnosis."

Jones has developed new technology to monitor the health of freshwater systems more effectively. The project came about after working with Horahora Marae and their kaitiaki programme along the Waikato River, the source of Auckland's drinking water.

"I've developed a nitrate sensor that detects and measures nitrate in rivers and delivers the results wirelessly to a cloud-based platform that can see the results in real-time."

Water flow, water depth and tepidity are as important as monitoring what is in the water. Jones is critical about the frequency of our current monitoring process.

"…we should monitor every day, every hour, every kilometre across a whole catchment so that we can track the changes in the water quality across the whole catchment."

Those in the water industry agree as does the Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta.

"We do want that, more testing of the water so that we really know what is in the water. However, the costs for that is huge for some councils."

"I think we need more monitoring and testing with small water suppliers. It's not difficult and it's not even expensive," says Jim Graham, the principal advisor for water quality at Water NZ.

It is hoped that reforms through the Water Services Bill will address these issues. The government aims to introduce the bill by the end of the year, with possible enactment by mid-2020.