February 16, 2004, was the day Manawatu went under. A huge wet weather front slammed into the Ruahine Range, dumping 250 millimetres of rain.
It dealt a 100-year flood to Palmerston North, and a 250-year flood to other parts of Manawatu.
Stopbanks overflowed, piped, and failed. Hundreds of people were evacuated in Feilding, and Scott's Ferry and Tangimoana went under water.
More than 20 bridges were washed away, and the Manawatu Gorge fell down in a massive slip that took weeks to clear.
Waituna West farmer David Meads was nearing the end of his first term as a Horizons regional councillor the day the flood came. He saw apparently stable hillsides on his farm slumping, and benign little streams turned into ravening waterways, feeding the big rivers.
As a regional councillor, his concern was whether Horizons' flood protection schemes would hold.
The city's did, but the Manawatu River's watershed escaped the worst of the wet. But the lower Manawatu scheme and the works protecting lower Rangitikei land were clobbered by water levels they'd never been designed to cope with.
Looking back, he says that flood was a turning point for the council. It refocused it on core business again.
Regional councils formed in a local body reorganisation in 1989. They became combination catchment-drainage boards, which in Manawatu meant flood protection and soil conservation. The councils also picked up other regional responsibilities – water quality, transport, tourism, and air quality.
And, in the early 1990s, another huge workload came along: the Resource Management Act (RMA) loaded regional councils with plan development work and consent processes.
Mr Meads believes the RMA made it harder for Horizons to concentrate on its core business of flood protection.
"The lower Manawatu scheme had been reviewed in the mid-'90s and there was a three-stage programme to upgrade it. By the time the early 2000s came along, it was a long way behind schedule.
"The work to protect the city at Fitzroy Bend had been done, and that $6 million saved Palmerston North in 2004. But the work lower down, on the tributaries, was way behind. As we found out in 2004."
Farmers were feeling somewhat aggrieved as well, believing they'd been somewhat shut out of the consultation process when flood and drainage schemes were reviewed – yet they were the people whose gumboots overflowed when heavy rain caused flooding on the plains.
After the 2004 floods, Mr Meads said the council took a hard look at what it needed to do. He became operations committee chairman in his second term and his role was to balance the protection work needed against the community's ability to pay, and to help guide the council on the best way forward.
He's quietly proud of the council's achievements since. "We did a lot of investigation work of that lower Manawatu scheme and by late 2005 we'd agreed a 10-year, $40m programme of work. We're nearly halfway through that, and it's on track and inside budget."
Other achievements have included a $5m upgrade to protect the lower Rangitikei, giving 100-year flood protection to Scott's Ferry and Tangimoana, and the $12.5m City Reach project to further protect the city. In addition, five new river management schemes have been developed: Kiwitea, Akitio, Whangaehu-Mangawhero, Turakina and the eastern Manawatu, upstream of Dannevirke.
"Every major river system in our region has now got a management scheme on its lower reaches," Mr Meads says. "I think it's fair to say that 2004 refocused Horizons on that aspect of its core business."
The challenge for the next council is water quality. The focus of the last term of council has been on getting the One Plan right, to build the regulatory framework for the next decade. Mr Meads can't talk too much about the ins and outs of it, because while decisions have been made, the appeal period is still open.
What he does talk about, with vigour, is the "nonsense idea" that the Manawatu River is the most polluted in the Western world.
"Emotive media writing gone ballistic, and just factually incorrect ... it focused on just one aspect of some modelling work that didn't reflect everything going on in the river. Of course it's not the worst in the Western world ... and that statement has hurt our region badly."
A better measure of the Manawatu's pollution levels was the Ministry for the Environment's river health league tables. Those ranked the river among the worst 10 in New Zealand, but given that it flowed through a largely farmed landscape, the nutrient enrichment and bacterial contamination it suffered was not surprising.
Not surprising doesn't mean acceptable, however. Mr Meads says the best thing that's come out of the worst river story has been increased public awareness of the need to improve water quality.
"I have high hopes of the Manawatu River Accord. It's got the point-source dischargers and the council and the community on the same page. The next step is whether the community's prepared to fund initiatives to improve water quality."
Immediate improvements could be achieved if every farmer fenced off waterways, keeping livestock away from rivers.
"Dairy farmers are already doing this as part of Fonterra's clean streams accord. Fonterra's been clear that it will penalise so-called dirty dairying, because it hurts our international image when we export."
Mr Meads said the sustainable land use initiative was another strength to come out of the 2004 flood. Planting more trees to hold slip-prone hillsides and retiring marginal land that shouldn't be farmed helped with long-term protection of soil. Region-wide possum control through a 10-year programme, started in 2005, was another significant milestone.
He's enjoyed his three terms on the council, but says he's retiring because its time to concentrate on farm work again.
- The Manawatu Standard
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