Wednesday, April 24, 2024

ECan to go it alone on flood plans

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Plea for protection systems fall on deaf govt ears, says chair.
Ian Mackenzie surveys the area where the regional council is securing a parcel of farmland in the Ashburton District to move stopbanks.
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Plans to redesign Canterbury flood protection systems will press on despite the lack of government foresight and investment in flood protection, Environment Canterbury chair Peter Scott says.

“As the regional council in New Zealand’s largest region, it feels like we are being neglected when it comes to future-proofing,” Scott said, in response to the fact that the government didn’t give the flood protection funding his organisation requested in Budget 2023.

 “I am feeling deflated and disappointed by the lack of government foresight and investment in flood protection for our region,” Scott said.

“That’s not to say support isn’t needed for areas badly impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle. We received considerable support during the earthquake recovery so we know the response up north is critical.

“However, to not invest in protection in other at-risk areas in Canterbury is short sighted.

“Flooding is the No 1 natural disaster in NZ and with the impacts of climate change becoming more significant and frequent, we are at risk here in Canterbury.”

ECan and other regional councils made a joint submission to the government asking for co-investment in a major flood protection programme.

The proposal was for central and local governments to co-invest $257 million over the next three years to fund 92 urgent flood protection areas across the country.

“We have been asking central government to co-invest with us in flood protection and river management since 1989, and still it is ratepayers across the country footing the bill.

“The recent devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle could happen anywhere in the South Island and we shouldn’t wait for that to happen before taking action.

“We thought we had a strong case in the 2023 Budget, especially given what’s at risk if there is significant flooding along our 78,000km of river systems.”

This includes national assets such as Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency roads, KiwiRail bridges that run near rivers and power and communications infrastructure, which all would be affected and disrupt supply chains in the event of another major flood event.

I am hoping that this decision by the government isn’t final. We will keep working to make sure our concerns are heard in Wellington,” Scott said.

ECan regional councillor and chair of the rivers and catchment committee Ian Mackenzie said there is no question, “every dollar spent in prevention is cheaper than recovery”.

Work to protect Canterbury from future flooding is ongoing, but disappointingly without a government-funded boost.

Mackenzie said about $15m is spent annually on managing rivers and maintaining $650m of flood protection infrastructure and that in turn protects $110 billion worth of public and private assets.

“But it’s all coming under capital value rating, putting a burden on a small part of the community when potentially it protects much wider, not just farmland.”

While the campaign for annual government flood protection funding continues, the work must go on.

“There is work we can do, we can’t sit back and wait for that money, we have to get on and do what we can ourselves to safeguard the community but it would be a bloody sight easier if the government came in to help.”

Mackenzie said more than stopbanks are needed.

Having done research in California, Mackenzie is encouraged by the concept of dams.

“We need to think widely how we control catchments and across the country there will be different needs in different regions.”

“NZ has a lot of water and it’s natural that we have water storage. If we have water storage in conjunction with stopbanks, we have the best chance of flood protection.”

In California the federal government buys in to take flood water capacity into dams.

“The flood water flows into the dam and can be released down country in time. It’s not the perfect system, it won’t work in every back country, but it’s very good investment in the right places.

“It will take infrastructure investment and it will need the pathway cleared to allow it to happen, the RMA is the stumbling block here.

“We did see this [storage] in action in the May 2021 Canterbury floods, where the Opuha dam in South Canterbury, empty at the time, took the flood flow for three days, stored it, saving the catchment from any significant damage.”       

Mackenzie said there is a lot of enthusiasm from communities and district councils. 

“We need to look at options and consider best solutions in location specific and individual circumstances. 

“ECan has got the capacity to do the work, we just have to get the funding and get through the legal barriers.

“We are struggling to address our shingle extraction because the RMA restricts our ability.”

Meantime at least one resilience project is progressing.

ECan has recalled some lease land and is in the process of finalising the purchase of a parcel of land to move stopbanks and rearrange the section of the Ashburton-Hakatere River near where it breached in 2021, flooding hundreds of hectares of farmland, leaving a large toll of dead livestock and infrastructure carnage in its wake.

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