Call Canute, writes Patricia Moore, who finds a huge number of issues for councils to battle as they face up to the implications of rising seas.
The majority of Kiwis live less than 10 kilometres from a shoreline. Some are even closer with more than 9000 homes on land less than 50 centimetres above spring high tide levels. But, as the impact of climate change becomes more evident, questions are being raised about the wisdom of life on the edge.
Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright has described an accelerating rise in sea levels as “incremental and inexorable”.
So clearly for councils, issues around foreshore management are growing. And, while coastal local authorities are feeling the most heat, as the popularity of lakeside lifestyles increases and tourism numbers grow, others are also focusing on foreshore management strategies.
Experts canvassed by Local Government Magazine raised a large number of issues. These range from increased flood hazards to the overtopping of existing infrastructure putting significant public assets at risk. Then there’s growing pressure from foreshore landowners for councils to protect their properties – thereby maintaining the value – or to permit them to armour their beachfronts.
There are also issues around the discharge of sediment and contaminants; managing both biodiversity and biosecurity; the increasing desire for access to the coastline; and the high cost of coastal protection options – can communities afford to protect public and private assets on our coastlines?
Greg Bennett, chair of the Coastal Restoration Trust of New Zealand, says these issues present a number of challenges for local authorities “along with tensions over the retreat or defend paradigm and managing the ‘squeaky wheel’ phenomenon”. This he describes as “those vocal community members and councillors who have strongly biased views on foreshore management”.
Consensus between stakeholders and technical advisors could also be challenging, he says.
Greg notes a number of ways the challenges facing local government in managing the foreshore could be overcome. Among them are increased guidance and support from central government, “so that local politics doesn’t override national coastal policy and scientific reality”.
Greg says effort needs to be put into public debate and discussion on what’s needed – even if it’s unpopular.
“Local government could also support initiatives such as conferences and seminars to promote coastal protection and restoration, and increase awareness of natural coastal processes.”
According to Maurice Hoban, GHD lead for planning and environment, the big question is not whether the sea level will rise by 30 centimetres, 50 centimetres or even one metre. “At some time it will rise to those levels,” he says.
He suggests that local authorities now need to be asking whether they should be doing anything different.
“Should business-as-usual development, infrastructure, planning and investment be undertaken on our coastal fringes the same way it’s been done for the past 50 to 150 years?”
He notes that traditional ways of dealing with coastal hazards have been engineered solutions, such as sea walls, rock revetment, pebble beach replenishment and pumping water. Maurice says these are all expensive to put in place and maintain.
“Rising sea levels mean protection may not be the most pragmatic or affordable solution. Relocation or retreat might become a more realistic discussion to start having with communities.”
Cushla Loomb, Beca technical director – planning, says given the three-yearly council cycle, long-term planning and investment in foreshore management is a major challenge for local bodies.
“Councils also need to address soft costs versus the hard; putting a price on the value of a beach to the wider community compared with the economic losses possible to private landowners from encroachment by the sea. Navigating through these challenges may result in lengthy and costly legal battles for councils.”
To overcome such issues Cushla says councils need long-term coastal strategies that achieve the buy-in of communities. “They will also need to implement long-term infrastructure planning that survives current re-election cycles.”
Tonkin & Taylor’s business leader – natural hazards Richard Reinen-Hamill notes that society is traditionally better at reacting to events rather than planning for eventualities.
“Planning for something different to the historical approach of protection, takes time and effort.”
He says local authorities will need to take the community with them in their decision-making processes. “There are risks of communities driving particular requirements, but without investing in community involvement in the early stages, there is an increased risk of opposition.”
Richard acknowledges councils are working to find ways of managing better in a complex and changing environment. He doesn’t foresee significant changes to the role of local government in this area.
“But there will be more challenges – both public and climate – and hopefully better information and tools.” To understand what is happening, data from monitoring and understanding physical processes and change is important, he says.
“However, councils shouldn’t be waiting for something to happen, rather, taking into account something will, or may happen. A good example is in the Hawke’s Bay where a group of councils is trying to develop a meaningful coastal hazard strategy.”
Finally, Maurice adds that councils have the opportunity to engage and work with communities and landowners on the issues and potential solutions.
“Without standards or investment from central government, local authorities should look to bring together a shared body of knowledge to standardise approaches, learn lessons and provide consistent messaging to all coastal communities,” he says.
“This body of knowledge will also be useful to at-risk communities across New Zealand who will be seeking consistency in decisions on investment, policies, rules or actions taken by local authorities.”
- Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.