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Water infrastructure: Lessons from the floodlands

Lessons from the floodlands Featured Image LG Oct 2016
Water New Zealand CE John Pfahlert.
Water New Zealand CE John Pfahlert.

It’s time to stop arguing about where people live or who pays for our water infrastructure. Water New Zealand CE John Pfahlert calls for new ways to fund innovative and appropriate infrastructure.

In an article in the Listener earlier this year, journalist Rebecca Macfie detailed a somewhat acrimonious debate that followed the severe flooding event that struck residents of South Dunedin on June 3, 2015. A year on, the debate still simmers. In very simplistic terms, some central government politicians and mayor Dave Cull asserted the flooding was related to climate change and suggested parts of low-lying, close-to-the-sea South Dunedin would need to be relocated.

Meanwhile, former engineering staff from both the city and regional councils have presented a strong case that the argument the infrastructure was inadequate to deal with an extreme weather event was misinformed.

They argue the system was not ‘ancient’ nor subject to rising sea levels. Rather they contend the flooding was largely a consequence of blockages to intakes, mud tanks and large filter screens not being cleared of debris – effectively acting as dam walls.

A further complication in resolving the debate is the Dunedin council’s third-party contractor advised council some time prior to the extreme weather event that a routine inspection of the mud tanks had found a third were not up to specification (ie, over 30 percent full of silt and rubbish).

Macfie reports, however, that the same contractor told the Listener that its services had been, “delivered to Dunedin City Council in accordance with contract requirements. Its performance was supervised by the council and it had ‘passed numerous performance audits’.”

Such debates around flooding are not new but are clearly not a productive way of dealing with what is this country’s leading natural disaster. Shortly after the South Dunedin event Whanganui was struck during the night with the worst flooding on record. The entire city was isolated, major evacuations took place and many residential and business properties were severely inundated.

This year, on March 24, parts of Franz Josef village were devastated when heavy rain altered the course of the Waiho River, and late at night a stopbank intended to protect the village was breached. The swollen river wiped out the town’s sewage ponds and the river ran straight through one of the hotels. After the event some suggested the entire township, population 450, should be relocated away from the river.

Interestingly, and more on this point later, while the village has only 450 residents, more than one million tourists visit each year and during the peak season some 5000 visitors stay each night.

The three cases above raise a number of issues including management of stormwater infrastructure, the costs of rehabilitation of buildings and infrastructure, and the capacity of small communities with limited rating bases to deal with major storm events.

In response to the situation the president of Local Government New Zealand, Lawrence Yule, quite correctly noted that tourism numbers were growing throughout the country and many popular tourism spots were in areas where there was only a small resident population. The local infrastructure had often been built to suit the demands of that population, but not the demands of thousands of tourists.

Previously, in 2015, LGNZ had issued a 10-point funding plan that included canvassing the idea of a ‘visitor levy’ that would be directed to upgrading and extending infrastructure to cater for seasonal demand.

Central government had previously announced a Regional Mid-Sized Tourism Facilities Fund that, with co-funding from local government, would see $12 million spent over four years on infrastructure in communities facing tourism pressures.

Given the cost of infrastructure and the growing tourism numbers this will clearly not be adequate. The idea of a visitor levy has not received support from central government and any talk of additional cost applied to individual visitors is vigorously opposed by the tourism industry.

Debate and discussion around roles, responsibilities and costs in reference to flood management is not new. In 2008 the Ministry for the Environment released a report outlining the issues. Meeting the Challenges of Future Flooding in New Zealand, while not specifically addressing the tourism issue, did note the problems facing many lower income and small rating base areas in relation to infrastructure funding.

The report commented on the variability of flood risk management practice across the country, called for greater integration across all areas of decision-making, and noted the lack of baseline information and the absence of standard risk definitions.

More recently the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has released several reports addressing the challenges facing coastal communities in relation to potentially rising sea levels.

An extreme rainfall event and particularly high tides in the Wellington region recently highlighted the Commissioner’s concerns. North of Wellington City there were several instances of coastal land and property being swept away and in one case a serious pollution hazard could have arisen. A sewer main was exposed right on the coastline.

The question does need to be asked why such a line was laid in front of beachside properties – a graphic example of the limitations of current flood risk management practice as outlined in the 2008 report.

As noted above, flooding is this country’s most common natural disaster. Perhaps we are now at the point where it is time for central government to take a far greater leadership role. Tourism is a major, and growing, dollar earner and most New Zealanders live close to the coast.

Arguing about where people live or who pays for the infrastructure is not a productive way to proceed. New approaches are required, most particularly in reference to funding innovative and appropriate infrastructure.

• John Pfahlert is chief executive of Water New Zealand. ceo@waternz.org.nz

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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