Mayor Jamie Cleine believes his Buller District is New Zealand’s canary in the coal mine for signalling the clear and present danger climate change is presenting to rural communities.
The district is welcoming a spell of warm, dry weather, ideal for cleaning up after the second significant weather event in less than nine months. Their combined effect has left parts of the district’s roading network severely damaged and traumatised residents again repairing damaged homes and businesses.
Cleine said the Buller District is a wakeup call to central government contemplating climate change effects.
While mitigation against future changes is vital, he said it is dealing with the cumulative impacts of back-to-back events that will cost his council for years to come.
“Affordability for this district is a big one and we are in discussion with NEMA (National Emergency Management Agency) on funding,” Cleine said.
While not finalised, he expects the recovery to amount to tens of millions of dollars.
The Insurance Council confirmed it has also paid out $90 million in claims to Westport’s 4000 residents after the July event.
Key infrastructure damage includes five major slips on the vital Westport-Karamea road, in themselves likely to amount to several million in repair bills.
“We are at least fortunate that it is classed as a ‘special purpose’ road, so funded through Waka Kotahi. However, the Government is trying to move out of these roads, and leave funding to local authorities. That would be a huge risk for a council like ours,” he said.
Cleine’s council’s dilemma reflects that faced by other sparsely populated, rural-based districts being hit by severe events.
The washout of culvert systems, bridge heads and water treatment plants are putting significant loads on council reserves.
With only 7500 ratepayers in Buller, any unplanned capital expenditure incurs a 1% increase in rates per $100,000, and single culvert repairs can amount to at least that in remote areas. Dozens of culverts and drains in areas like Inangahua have been wrecked by flooding this time around.
“Council is under pressure, no doubt. We will have to review our annual plan. However, there is no feeling we are writing anything off, everything on our asset book we are wanting to keep,” he said.
Local body data indicates the portion of funds rural and provincial councils are having to commit to emergency funding is on the rise.
Over the past five years both have experienced a 5% lift in emergency expenditure, compared to a 15% decline in city and metro areas.
Across the Alps in the Ashburton District, Mayor Neil Brown said his district has only just completed $4 million of road repairs incurred in May’s flood events.
“And it means that our regular maintenance has been delayed, you end up chasing your tail,” Brown said.
While the council welcomed $3m of that from Waka Kotahi, Brown said, like other councils, they are willing to spend funds on roading under Waka Kotahi’s 50:50 arrangement, but get stymied by agency budgets.
“You may want to put in $20 million, expecting $20m from Waka Kotahi, but they will only put in $12m, and we put in $12 million, and you don’t get what you need. Councils are told to top it up themselves,” he said.
Brown foresees real resilience issues in his district’s rural road network that extends to a national level.
“We had the Ashburton bridge out in May’s flood, the South Island was effectively cut in two. Food supplies to supermarkets south of Christchurch were affected,” he said.
There are four vital bridges across the Canterbury region – Ashburton, Rangitata, Rakaia and Hinds – of similar design and age, all facing strength issues.
“The Rakaia bridge is vulnerable. If it goes out, the only diversion is through Rakaia Gorge, which is a one-lane bridge,” he said.
In the meantime, he said his local roads are deteriorating due to the triple impact of heavier traffic flows, trucks and rainfall.
“Our road funding, as with other councils, has been cut back by $5 million. In the coming year we are looking at an extra $2m of unscheduled maintenance – if we don’t put it into them, they will deteriorate into nothing,” he said.
Rural electricity networks are also grappling with the impacts of increasingly severe weather events.
Electricity Networks Association chief executive Graeme Peters represents companies with over 150,000km of lines, the bulk of them stretching across rural NZ.
Rising temperatures and heavier rainfall in some areas is creating denser, faster vegetative growth that falls onto lines causing outages.
Recent ex Tropical Cyclone Dovi caused tens of thousands of rural outages across central NZ, much of it resulting from trees falling on lines.
Peters said this is exacerbated by arcane rules around responsibilities for trees near power lines, rules that have proven difficult to change at central government level.
While companies cannot legally walk away from difficult supply areas, they are increasingly exploring alternative power options to keep electricity flowing, if not through poles and wires.
“This can include solar panels and battery technology, maybe backed up by a generator,” Peters said.
Increasing temperatures are also having to be factored into having heavier, more expensive cables to maintain efficiencies over long distances.
“As we move away from hydrocarbons, people are only going to become more, not less, reliant upon electricity, so members are more mindful than ever on the importance of keeping it on,” he said.