Sympathy no stopbank for riverside residents

01:27, May 19 2014
Heathcote River in flood April 29f
VULNERABLE PROPERTIES: Christchurch City Council established a taskforce after repeated flooding in areas such as Heathcote, Woolston and the Flockton Basin.

When people think floods they think Flockton, but homes along the Heathcote River have been dealing with water lapping at their front doors, too. Only they say the problem was preventable. BECK ELEVEN reports.

First the earthquakes, then the floods. You'd almost be forgiven for expecting a cloud of locusts on the horizon.

In the wake of extensive flooding across Christchurch, a mayoral taskforce sought a short-term solution. But when the document was released on Monday, answers were not forthcoming.

No one denies officials have sympathy for those with water lapping at their front doors whenever it rains.

"Soul destroying," said the Prime Minister.

"Depressing," said the Mayor.


"People are desperate," said the head of Christchurch's flooding taskforce.

But utterly preventable say people who live along the Heathcote River. Sympathy is no stopbank.

The majority of flood coverage has been from the area commonly known as the Flockton Basin but there are almost as many people threatened by flooding along the Heathcote River. The difference is that these residents believe neglect and inaction has caused the problems. They do not believe their issues can be landed squarely at the foot of the earthquakes.

Alison Searle and her husband Neal Irwin bought their Heathcote Valley home in Stedley Place 14 years ago. Quake damage was cosmetic and 18 months ago they moved back into a freshly repaired home.

"But then the March storm came and basically turned our street into a little lake," Searle says.

To prevent Pink Batts soaking moisture further up the walls, they have ripped out the lower portions, carpets and all whiteware appliances. It was back to square one. The couple and their young children moved to a rental in Woolston, upsetting the children's routine, living further from their school friends and community.

"When we moved here much of the subdivision was yet to be built, and streams ran through the area. People said we needed drainage but it had never really been a problem because of the streams, but they were filled in to make way for a neighbouring lane.

"So where was the runoff supposed to go? There are people who have lived here that understand the flow. The council know there is a problem and we need to be told.

"We are different than Flockton. I'm sure our land has changed since the quakes but mostly it's drainage and maintenance."

Definitive answers from those in governance continue to prove difficult. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee says flooding was exacerbated by quakes, but problems already existed. He said despite pledging government support, council had not made any requests.

"If I was living there I would be pretty hacked off with the way the council has dealt with this," Brownlee said on radio on Thursday.

Two weeks ago Mainlander requested an interview with the head of the council's flood task force, Mike Gillooly, but a spokeswoman said he was unable to make time while looking for solutions.

The taskforce's report, released on Monday by Gillooly's team, identified nearly 1000 Christchurch properties that had been subject to some form of flooding since the earthquakes. The cost of protecting the 56 most vulnerable homes across Christchurch in the short-term could cost as much as $13.6 million but those residents have been told to "brace for a wet winter". There is no quick fix.

Further up Searle's flood-prone street live Judy and Allan Stack, who have become amateur drainage experts and advocates for people in the area. They have lived there 18 years. Their three-level house collapsed during the September 2010 quake and they took possession of their rebuilt, single-level home last month. The house is new but the view is the same. Although now they look out to hill-faces scarred where water has forged new paths down the slopes.

The valley is known for its artesian water and rich soils. Now it is known for flood risk.

She remembers one flood event in the late 1990s but post-quake it feels all too frequent. Vulnerabilities in the ground were exposed, springs popped up under floorboards and along footpaths.

The Stacks got a pond in their driveway and "grew 20 ducklings one year".

After the March floods, they rang MP Ruth Dyson, who corralled representatives from the council and EQC. At the conclusion of the meeting an unknown audience member stood up and introduced himself.

It was Gillooly, then council land drainage operations manager, saying he had not long been in the job and was keen to get as much information as possible.

"Well, it was a baptism of fire. People felt like they were being listened to and that something might happen to improve their lives."

The Stacks are apprehensive about apportioning blame. They say there is no point when it comes to natural disasters but they feel the council lost track of stormwater drains, and flooding in the lower parts of the Heathcote would have been preventable if maintenance had been kept up and audited.

There are two wide timber- lined stormwater culverts along either side of the train tracks in this area, designed to take runoff from the hills.

But when the rains came in March, these culverts, about the height and width of an average man, were almost half-filled with silt and stones. The water had nowhere to go but up and over. Outlet flaps weren't working properly, because they were old and heavy.

The Stacks say council agreed these needed dredging but before it was done, the next flood arrived.

"It was Good Friday. I got up at 7.30am to make a cup of tea and I looked out that window and thought 'what is all that brown stuff?' Judy says.

"Oh my God, it was river water again. And I knew that if it was here, it would be worse in the next lane over. There were lakes in people's back yards. You see rain and it's just back to Groundhog Day. It breaks your heart."

They made contact with the council and found workers clearing drains and sweeping streets within the hour. Floodwaters were kept to a minimum.

There's a bit of folklore going around Heathcote. A resident who owned a digger got stuck in, making his own drain until the cops told him he could be arrested.

"Go ahead," he said.

It might not be 100 per cent true but it characterises the desperation. Won't someone just do something?

"It's not fair that people will have to declare flooding and pay thousands of dollars on their insurance excess if this wasn't their fault?"

People want answers, the Stacks say people want to know if maintenance lapsed and if anyone was checking.

Mainlander emailed these questions to council. They have been answered by John Mackie, unit manager transport and greenspace.

Did maintenance contracts for Heathcote drainage lapse?

No, maintenance contracts have always been in place for drainage and roading contracts across the city. What was advised at the council meeting on Monday was that the former practice of dredging rivers ceased in the early 1990s with the introduction of the Resource Management Act. This Act controls activities in rivers based on the environmental effects. Dredging has a significant environmental impact and was curtailed at that time, as it would have been in breach of the Act.

Was there a maintenance schedule?

Yes, there are both routine and reactive schedules in the contract as well as emergency response procedures.

If so, was it audited?

Contracts are audited, both internally by accredited contractors and by council contract supervision staff.


Not everybody believes the council has been operating honestly or sensibly when it comes to drainage and stormwater management over the years.

Warren Lewis admits hydrologic engineering is not his area of expertise but as a structural engineer at Lewis & Barrow and chairman of the Cashmere Rural Landowners Inc, he has thrown himself into understanding flooding in the Heathcote and its mitigation.

He thinks the problems are historic, that they have been caused, in the main, by mismanagement and that the river is naturally trying to tell us what it needs - widening.

With a house in Cracroft, overlooking the Heathcote near Princess Margaret Hospital and farmland on the edge of Henderson's Pond near Aidenfield, he has kept a close eye on drainage. Lewis says he has objected to resource consents for subdivisions around the upper reaches of the river for about a dozen years but has been countered by other experts each time.

"It becomes like expert witnesses in court. You bring an expert witness, they bring in one to argue the opposite. You get another one, they hire two more.

"It's madness. The problems in Heathcote are purely mismanagement, they were historic but they continue today."

So confident these problems could be solved faster and for less, Lewis says: "Give me eight diggers, eight weeks and a good team of guys and I could get these problems fixed. Heathcote and Flockton. You don't need 20 or 30 meetings and God knows what else."

Paddocks that once soaked up rain are increasingly developed for subdivisions, compressing that land to the point where it is impermeable, he says. Houses are bigger, creating more runoff from larger roofs and people are increasingly replacing gardens and lawn with pavers and asphalt.

"It's squeezing the lemon too hard."


Sarah and Dean Henderson live on Eastern Terrace. Their latest water feature is a sinkhole that appeared when the last rains came down. They had a slump in the grass and a "geyser" after the quakes, but three weeks ago, after the last floods, a sinkhole opened up in their front yard.

"I don't know why or how it started," Sarah Henderson says. "It may have been a spring eating away at the soil. We just don't know."

The sinkhole, the springs, the silt, the frustration. The quakes were one thing but fearing floods every time it rains is another. It's the cumulative effect. It's death by a thousand paper cuts.

You know that chilly damp feeling of walking under the canopy of a native forest? Even at noon on a sunny autumn day, that is the feeling outside Leigh Conley's Beckenham home on Eastern Terrace.

It's the fresh spring water. Natural springs sound lovely in theory but when they have been running from underneath your house for three years, the shine comes off. It might be attractive to ducks and eels but not to them. Water flows down the driveway and onto the street, slowly eroding the guttering.

The gutters brimmed with water that wouldn't drain. Considered a drowning hazard, it was filled with stones but the stones now block it from draining at all.

Conley, husband Phil Grey and their three school-aged girls want to rebuild and stay put but they want to feel safe.

At 3am a few weeks ago, they woke to the sound of an enormous riverside tree falling across powerlines outside their property.

"The roots can't cope with excessive flooding. It's fine at 3am but at 3pm when the kids are walking to school? It worries me," Conley says.

When the Heathcote River overflows around their patch, they are quickly trapped and they've learned to sleep with one eye on the river when the forecast is for rain.

"We knew we were buying beside a river, we didn't go in blind. And we were three years here before the first flood. But even then, the water didn't come onto the property and you could walk on the road.

"We've been stuck here six times over 12 months. You can't actually leave because the water is too swift. Cars have tried but become stuck. There are lots of sinkholes out there so you have to be able to see where you're going and rubbish bins are submerged if they're out and no one expects flooding.

"You're standing in the shower and brown river water comes up through the bath hole, you can't use the toilet. As soon as dark clouds come over, you're in the mode. You spend hours worrying. If you've moved the cars it might be OK but we've had to go over the back fence before."

She wonders what toxic substances are in the mud that is traipsed from the river to the footpath to the school and home again.

"After the last floods, council washed the roads. That's the first time I've seen them do that in all my years here. Everything is just too slow. We've accepted we want to stay in the area but we're green zone and that should mean 'go'. But it doesn't. At all."

They have cash-settled with their insurer. In the end, they just wanted to feel like they had some kind of control over their own lives.

Until then, and until authorities come up with solid answers, the control belongs to the weather. And weather obeys no-one.

The Press