Controversial 'climate' projects still waiting for money, a year on

STUFF
Rivers bursting their banks, flash floods and more intense cyclones. How climate change is making floods more extreme.

A quarry and a carbon-emitting pump system were greeted with disdain by climate activists when they were announced as recipients of Government “climate resilience” funding last August.

A year later, they are still awaiting confirmation of whether they will actually get the money.

Muggeridge’s pump station in Waikato, which releases carbon dioxide by draining carbon-rich peatland, and Kumeroa quarry, in Tararua, raised questions last August when they were included on a $100 million list of 29 projects meant to bolster climate resilience.

Projects on the list were “to protect against and mitigate the effects of climate change”, according to then-deputy prime minister Winston Peters and then-infrastructure minister Shane Jones, who jointly announced the funding almost exactly a year ago. They were part of the $3 billion of infrastructure spending announced as part of the Government’s Covid-19 response and recovery fund.

Climate scientists questioned whether those projects fitted the climate resilience description – and queried the wisdom of other listed projects that would encourage more housing development behind stopbanks.

Since then, dozens of other projects announced as part of the Covid recovery have had their funding confirmed by government officials and ministers. Many are already under way and a few are finished.

When Stuff asked the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) for an updated list of funded projects from the climate resilience announcement, it supplied a list of 56 projects. Those two projects were missing.

Asked whether they were still going to be funded, MBIE said it could not discuss that, because the approval process was still ongoing. The ministry said a decision was expected “within a few months”.

Kopuatai peat dome in Waikato (pictured here with scientists Georgie Glover-Clark and Dave Campbell) is one of the few remaining undrained peatlands in the region. Draining peat releases carbon dioxide but letting it flood can interfere with dairy farming.
Georgie Glover-Clark
Kopuatai peat dome in Waikato (pictured here with scientists Georgie Glover-Clark and Dave Campbell) is one of the few remaining undrained peatlands in the region. Draining peat releases carbon dioxide but letting it flood can interfere with dairy farming.

The final decision will rest with ministers responsible for the infrastructure reference group, most prominently Finance Minister Grant Robertson who is also infrastructure minister.

MBIE said the 56 projects that were currently part of the package were “at various stages of completion” and most were expected to be completed within the next one to three years.

One year and counting

Following criticism that its huge Covid recovery spending package risked locking in high emissions and vulnerability to climate change, the Government announced it was putting $100m into projects around the regions that would boost climate resilience.

Councils were invited to put forward projects that met the description.

But plans to use the funding to keep carbon-releasing peatlands from reverting to wetlands (which would largely halt emissions) and to build a rock quarry were ridiculed by climate activists.

Horizons Regional Council had put forward building the Kumeroa quarry for funding because, it said, it could help supply rock for flood defences.

But when Stuff asked Horizons last year about the project’s expected emissions and links to preparing for climate change, a spokesperson said the roughly $2m contribution from climate resilience funding had been withdrawn after officials looked more closely at the project.

At the time, MBIE denied this and said the quarry was still being considered. Neither party would offer any further comment on the apparent contradiction.

As for the pump station, last month, Waikato Regional Council told Stuff funding of $5.7 million towards the project was approved in principle by MBIE in 2020. (Local councils will also chip in money towards all the projects, under a co-funding model). “The project is sitting with the Infrastructure Reference Group ministers pending a final decision and we continue to await the outcome,” said a council spokesperson.

Soil scientists are concerned about moves to improve and lengthen the life of the pump station, which will create carbon emissions by allowing ongoing draining of 1100 hectares of carbon-rich peat soil for farming.

In total, Waikato’s drained peat soil, which is mainly used for dairying, could be producing as much carbon dioxide annually as Huntly power station, by some estimates, though more and better measurements are needed.

Studies on other drained peat in the Waikato have found it can lose about 3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year, depending on location, meaning draining an 1100-hectare area might have a similar climate impact to driving from Picton to Bluff 60 times, every year.

Critics fear the approximately $9m investment will end up being futile anyway, because sea level rise will overwhelm the new pump and channel. The current pumps can’t keep up with the combination of sinking soil and land that is already partly below sea level, causing problems for about 20 landowners. If the investment in stronger pumping and deeper drains was abandoned, or directed to offering to buy the land, the land would reflood on its own.

The council has peat management rules in place to minimise the damage caused by drainage, however the protocols themselves say there is no guarantee the measures will reduce carbon losses. The council said last year it had not estimated the greenhouse gas impact, because measurements are specialised and expensive.

Correction: Originally, this story said that the investment in Muggeridge’s pump station was approximately $18m. That figure included others works, such as fish-friendly pumps. The latest estimate to upgrade Muggeridge’s only is $9m (story edited 11.36am, August 4).

The list of funded “climate resilience” projects, supplied by MBIE (July 2021):

Northland:

1. Awanui scheme upgrade

2. Moerewa flood response

3. Panguru flood protection

4. Dargaville to Te Kōpuru stopbank project

5. Raupo upgrade

Bay of Plenty:

6. Rangitāiki River resilience

7. Bay of Plenty river schemes

Gisborne:

8. Waipaoa River flood control scheme

Hawkes Bay:

9. Upper Tukituki Flood Control Scheme

10. Upper Tukituki flood control scheme near State Highway 50 bridge

11. Wairoa River scheme

12. Heretaunga Plains flood control scheme

Waikato:

13. Piako River Ngātea town left stopbank

14. Fish passage pumps

15. Lake Kimihia ecological and cultural enhancement

16. Replacement vessel

17. Piako River mouth, right stopbank asset rationalisation

18. Erosion and protection in the catchments of Lower Waikato Lakes and Wetlands

19. Foreshore East and West stopbanks

20. Mill Road pump stations upgrade

21. Roger Harris pump station upgrade

Manawatū-Whanganui:

22. Foxton flood mitigation

23. Lower Manawatū flood protection

24. Palmerston North west stopbanks

25. Rangitīkei River enhancement

Wellington:

26. Ruamāhanga River scheme (Masterton River road and landfill bank erosion protection)

27. Riverlink, Hutt River scheme (Hutt River flood management, Stokes Valley to Melling)

28. Hutt River erosion edge protection

Nelson:

29. Saxton Creek flood protection

Marlborough:

30. Wairau river flood protection

Tasman:

31. Lower Motueka Flood Protection

West Coast:

32. Westport (Buller River) flood warning system

33. Hokitika flood and coastal erosion protection

34. Mawhera Quay flood protection wall upgrade

35. Franz Josef flood protection

Canterbury:

36. Rangitata River 2019 flood recovery

37. Region wide river berm planting programme and weed control programme

38. Ashley River/Rakahuri protection

39. Waimakariri River, McIntosh’s Bend (riverbank, stopbank and pond embankment erosion protection)

40. Waiau township stopbank repairs

41. Halswell Hurutini weed barrage

Otago:

42. West Taieri contour channel and bridges upgrade

43. Riverbank Road flood protection

44. Robson’s Lagoon (upgrade/installation of flow management structures)

45. Outram flood protection

Southland:

46. Mataura stopbank protection

47. Stead Street pump station replacement

48. Waihopai stopbank

49. Otepuni stopbanks upgrade

50. Boundary Creek stopbank upgrade

51. Mataura stopbank upgrade

52. Gore Town stopbank upgrade

53. Waimumu stopbank

54. Wyndham stopbank

55. Waiau River (riverbank erosion protection to prevent silt flowing into the estuary)

56. Stead Street stopbank upgrade