The West Coast town facing an impossible choice: move or face destruction

Franz Josef township attracts up to 500,000 visitors a year.

Franz Josef township attracts up to 500,000 visitors a year.

Franz Josef Glacier, a jewel in the crown of New Zealand's tourism industry, is constantly on the move. 

The frozen river of ice that meets sub-tropical forest in spectacular fashion on the has been steadily retreating since 2008.

Now Franz Josef township, population 221, has been told residents may have to upend their entire way of life, or face being wiped out by an earthquake or floods.

A pristine day on the West Coast.

A pristine day on the West Coast.

"There are risks to the town," says Franz Josef resident Poppy Gordon with an air of resignation. "There is an alpine fault going through it and the river is right there, but what do you do?"

Quick retreat of New Zealand's glaciers an issue for tourism
Future of earthquake, flood-prone town of Franz Josef up in air
Surveying work continues for proposed gondola at Franz Josef Glacier 
Funding granted for report into Franz Josef earthquake and flood hazards 
Retreating glaciers possible threat to tourism

Franz Josef is the only town on the West Coast that straddles the alpine fault, meaning a 'big one' is inevitable. And the steady retreat of the glacier is causing the banks of the Waiho River that flows from it to push perilously close to bursting.

The base for the Glacier Country Helicopters Ltd crew is protected by the Waiho loop.

The base for the Glacier Country Helicopters Ltd crew is protected by the Waiho loop.

A risk analysis report was commissioned, and the three options for managing flood and earthquake hazards at Franz Josef were presented to the town last week: relocate, do nothing, or improve protection from the river.

A more detailed report from engineering firm Tonkin and Taylor, will give a more detailed costing for shifting the town, amid claims the cost would be as much as $1 billion. The cost is expected to be closer to $600m. The logistics of how an entire town can be moved remains to be seen. 

Either way, that's a decent chunk of change for Franz Josef which has already been lumped with double digit rate increases in recent years, to help pay for the infrastructure required to service the estimated 500,000 annual visitors. 

Franz Josef Glacier is the major drawcard for visitors.

Franz Josef Glacier is the major drawcard for visitors.

Poppy Gordon thinks the town will gradually relocate, but the huge cost may prevent moving infrastructure like hotels and restaurants that can be found dotted along the state highway.  

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"People would still come here regardless of what the river does or where the town is," long-term resident and Air Safaris and Services West Coast manager Steve Henery says.

Henery, whose company has taken thousands of visitors for flights over the glacier, says the area is unique.

Franz Josef Glacier has lost about 800 metres since 2008.

Franz Josef Glacier has lost about 800 metres since 2008.

"It's an extraordinary geological area and botanical area. Most people don't realise this is the beech gap, it's where the glaciers are covered with ice from Greymouth to Lake Paringa, from the mountains to the sea."

On a typical day, campervans file in to the town as passengers stop to buy souvenirs, a meal or a dose of caffeine before they trek to activities suited to the young and old, the adrenalin-charged backpacker or those seeking tranquility.

If the weather is clear, helicopters dot the sky on a continuous loop to the glacier.

Steve Henery says Franz Josef is an extraordinary geological area and botanical area.

Steve Henery says Franz Josef is an extraordinary geological area and botanical area.

The glacier, named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by explorer Julius von Haast in 1865, is the main drawcard.

There's also the Franz Josef Wildlife Centre, a short turn off from the state highway, which is home to a successful breeding programme for the rowi, the rarest of the five species of kiwi. 

Successful hatches are then raised on pest-free islands before being released in to the Okarito Forest north of the township.

Franz Josef Glacier is popular for walks and heli rides.

Franz Josef Glacier is popular for walks and heli rides.

"We've got clay bird shooting, we've got quad bikes and horse treks and kayaks and forest walks, white herons and a gondola would just top it off," Henery says.

Henery believes residents will be staunchly opposed to moving.

"My view is it's human nature, people won't move," he says.

"So the best thing is to encourage development to the north, which is what is happening. The next thing will be the police station, the fire brigade and the petrol station to be moved to a safer location."

The braided river is an immediate threat, while hazard plans prepare for a one in a hundred years event.

"Those times where we've had a foot of rain in a day. That will happen again and that's what they are worried about. So it's just where the river will go. But one of the things is to manage it, stop bank it and channel it," Henery says.

Many communities were living under the threat of an earthquake, he says.

"The whole country is fault driven, that's why it is here. That's why Mount Cook is there. It's been pushed up," he says.

The 600 km fault has ruptured five times in the past 1100 years. Each time it produced an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 to 8.0, the last being in 1717. Experts have advised an earthquake occurs about every 300 years.

One option is to shift the town further north, closer to Lake Mapourika. Another is to build greater protection from the Waiho River, while a third option is to live with the risk.


At an extraordinary Westland District Council meeting in July, the council approved a new filtration gallery and maintenance to a 650-metre section of the flood embankment that protects properties and schools north of the town from the Waiho River. 

The work ensured the school, power station, sewerage ponds and holiday accommodation on the northern side of the river will remain protected in the interim.

At the most recent Franz Josef community meeting, residents were advised that within 20 years, the river would be built up to the stage where it's at the same level of the town. Raising the Waiho River bridge was also tabled in the West Coast action plan. 

If the glacier advances again it would slow gravel washing downstream. 

"The river grabs that gravel and brings it down stream to us," Gus Gordon says.

Gordon suggested that the town did not need to be relocated "at the moment" and supported removing gravel to channel the river.

"It's like what they did with the bulldozer, it channelled it, it carried all the gravel. It dropped the water level of the river right down," he says.

The Franz Josef working group, comprised of local government, crown agencies, iwi, and local business owners, will put together a business case for Government pending the final release of the hazard report.

West Coast Regional Council chief executive Mike Meehan expects it will take 10 to 12 months before the community had "something in front of Government and hopefully some kind of decision".

Ray Eldershaw and his wife Dawn, who ran the Graham Motor Inn for six years, was one of the first moteliers in the area, and recalls the first wave of mass tourism to the town in the 1980s. 

He also recalls the great 1982 Waiho River flood, when seventy three inches of rain fell over three days and left 108 guests stranded at his inn. 

"We were completely and utterly stranded, we lost our airport, we lost the bridge, we lost everything as far as Franz was concerned," Eldershaw says.

They rebuilt and recovered, as people do on the West Coast. 

He recalled that Franz Josef wasn't the destination that it is today as coaches tended to drive through to Fox Glacier.

"We turned that around completely in the six years and had everyone, bar one, of the couch tours staying in Franz," he says.

Eldershaw put the change down to "people power" where business operators embraced customer service, "being nice to tourists" and improving the look.

Qualities that are part of the fabric of the new Franz Josef. 

And regardless of the risk, Franz Josef residents like Poppy Gordon will continue to enjoy this wonder of the West Coast for as long as possible. 

"It's just a beautiful spot," she says.

 - Sunday Star Times


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