Collective amnesia over flood-prone areas

23:33, Mar 06 2014

Flood-prone areas need active management to minimise the risk of inundation, yet the Resource Management Act makes that job harder, writes KATIE MILNE of Federated Farmers.

Ten years ago last month, the Manawatu suffered flooding in scenes eerily similar to what we have seen in Britain and now Christchurch. That 2004 flood event cost $300 million, with Palmerston North coming within a hair's breadth of disaster.

In Britain, a former head of its Environment Agency dismissively said of Somerset's flood management: "I'd like to see a limpet mine put on every pumping station." The UK's Environment Agency acts like a huge regional council for England and Wales on flood and coastal management.

Its embattled head, Lord Smith, now faces headlines like this: "Environment Agency bosses spent £2.4 million on PR, but refused £1.7 million dredging of key Somerset rivers that could have stopped flooding."

In October 2010, the late Horizons (Manawatu) regional councillor, David Meads, told The Manawatu Standard that the Resource Management Act made it harder for his council to deliver its core business of flood protection: "That $6 million saved Palmerston North . . . But the work lower down, on the tributaries, was way behind. As we found out in 2004."

Farmers felt shut out on consultation on flood and drainage schemes yet, "they were the people whose gumboots overflowed when heavy rain caused flooding on the plains".


In Christchurch, I guess we can now add homeowners.

Just over two months after Meads gave that telling interview, Golden Bay suffered from its worst flooding in over 150 years.

An unstoppable force of water bulked up by tonnes of gravel washed from hill gullies met the gravel-clogged lower reaches of the Aorere River.

It struck unmaintained gravel banks and instead of spilling over rock walling smashed through them and onto homes and farmland instead.

A root cause was Tasman District's zero extraction policy, adopted earlier despite that river having high gravel movement and build-up.

While some of the damage was caused by the extra volume of water, there's no doubt a lack of flood channel maintenance made it worse.

What the Manawatu and Aorere floods share in common are the advent of the Resource Management Act and the demise of the former catchment boards. If we add Britain and perhaps Christchurch, it's like collective amnesia over why active management of flood-prone areas and waterways was ever undertaken.

In New Zealand as in and Britain, it seems to have become almost unacceptable to actively manage nature in places where humans work and live.

Or, as Environment Minister Amy Adams told The Dominion Post, "Many RMA rules around the country have slipped into nonsense territory."

While that comment related to extremely tight rules on "modifying naturally occurring indigenous vegetation" it is emblematic why the RMA needs reform.

It is dull-headed to think we can just open ourselves up to the full forces of nature without any form of management and intervention and suffer no resulting ill-effect.

As one UK journalist noted: "One huge irony, as those who know the [Somerset] Levels intimately observe, is that among the victims of all this abnormal flooding are not just the human population, but nature itself. It has inflicted immense damage on ground-nesting birds, wild flowers, badgers (many of which have drowned in recent days) and even fish, which can no longer survive in undredged rivers choked by millions of tons of sludge."

While rain is a huge factor in any flood, the ability of land to shed water is equally so. Hydrologist Dr Colin Clark, writing in Britain's Water Power magazine, suggests the maintenance of lowland rivers, adequate pumping and managed ditches on-land and beside roads.

The key words overlooked here and in Britain seem to be maintenance and management. In Britain, just £1.7m of prevention could have saved hundreds of millions in damage.

While the British need to go back to King George III's reign for a wetter winter than they've just had, Clark says Somerset equates to a one-in-50 year flood event. Why then the catastrophe?

I suspect some Christchurch residents will nod at the comments of a horticulturist in The Daily Telegraph: "The river at Bridgwater is 10ft (3m) below its banks, while five miles upstream it is overflowing." Perhaps Britain's Spectator is right: "Most floods are an act of nature. This one belongs to the Environment Agency."

Here, much needed RMA reforms languish in Parliament. These reforms are about ensuring the RMA remains fit for purpose ensuring councils better engage with and are more accountable to their communities.

While an environmental impact assessment is often needed for economic, social or cultural works here, there is no such thing as an economic, social or cultural impact assessment in reverse.

This need not be partisan as the 2004 and 2010 flood responses show.

Christchurch proves how more heavily populated areas can also suffer from events like the Aorere and the Manawatu floods. Is it right that fixes are being implemented only when disaster strikes? While the UK floods will result in massive changes to environmental management, it's hubris here. Christchurch perhaps shows how Somerset in New Zealand is a matter of when, not if.

Katie Milne is Federated Farmers' adverse events spokeswoman.

The Press