Flood protection funding under review

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ECan councillor Ian Mackenzie (with microphone) listens to concerns at a public meeting with landowners and officials on Greenstreet following May-flooding..

The floods on the West Coast and high flows in mountain fed rivers these past weeks has prompted Environment Canterbury councillor Ian Mackenzie to pen an update to Canterbury communities on the planning for flood protection, funding reviews and learnings from past flood events.

Mr Mackenzie farms at Eiffelton and is co-chair of the Ecan’s catchment committee.

Most of us can be grateful for the flood protection infrastructure that protected us from greater damage in the May-floods, especially to towns such as Ashburton, Pleasant Point and Geraldine, where flooded rivers roared through but did little damage.

This was cold comfort to the many mainly rural property owners who suffered quite substantial damage; and of course, damage done to district roads and bridges is a cost we all will pick up as ratepayers.

Flooding along Ashburton Staveley Road saw many properties affected when the Ashburton River north and south branches burst. Photo NZDF

The floods highlighted how tenuous and fragile our flood protection investment is, especially when forecasts for climate change predict floods will happen with far greater frequency. In Canterbury we spend about $15million per year managing our rivers and maintaining $650m of flood protection infrastructure, protecting $110b worth of public and private assets, including nationally important assets like roads, bridges, rail and telecommunication links.

Life as we know it becomes very difficult when SH1 is closed because the bridges are damaged.

Ashburton Staveley Road (pictured), known as the Greenstreet, was among the areas badly hit by May flooding in Mid Canterbury.

The $15m Ecan collects for flood protection comes mainly from targeted rates paid by those who have land alongside the rivers, with 15-30% coming from the general, and works and services rate.

Many of the targeted river rating districts only cover parts of the river or catchment. In many cases, especially on smaller rivers, it makes sense to consider comprehensive rating districts over the whole river system so that we can manage these rivers not only for flood risk but for all the other values our communities expect.

We have been asked to explore these options for the Selwyn/Waikirikiri and Ashley/Rakahuri rivers. The Ashburton River has a comprehensive rating scheme already in place.

ECan councillor Ian Mackenzie

What is also clear is most river schemes are underfunded and cannot provide the level of protection communities now expect.

This is partly due to government stopping flood protection funding back in 1989. They paid most of the capital cost and up to 50% of the maintenance costs.

The other significant change is the development, both urban and rural, that has occurred since most of these flood protection schemes have been built. Homeowners and commercial property owners have a lower tolerance for flood inundation than owners of less developed agricultural land; and we have a more comprehensive network of roads and bridges that need protection.

Some new development has been enabled because of this flood protection such as the Riverside Industrial Estate in Ashburton and new subdivisions above Tinwald.

When we look at the expansion of urban and semi urban developments happening across the whole Canterbury region, we know there will be an expectation from property owners for better protection than farmers might expect for their land.

The Rangitata River in flood, captured by photographer Sam Anderson, shows the river in damage mode.

With the encouragement of the Ashburton River rating liaison committee, we have already reviewed the rating classification (who benefits and who pays) for the Ashburton/Hakatere River and are making some recommendations for change.

We will be discussing this proposal next month with the Ashburton community as part of our Annual Plan process, but in summary it is suggesting a flatter rates impost/$100,000 of capital value than the previous model. This means some properties (in Tinwald and Allenton) will pay a bit more and some will pay a bit less (such as Lake Hood and the upper reaches of the river).

The actual dollar changes for urban properties are relatively small.

Thick river silt covered land for landowners alongside the flooded Ashburton River.

We are also working with other regional councils nationwide to submit a case to central government to reinstate annual contributions for flood protection funding.

In addition, some Ecan councillors,are pushing to allow the rivers to go where they want, limit expenditure on flood control and relocate development including towns away from flood risk.

We are hoping sense will prevail and the river reviews proposed, along with a successful appeal to government for ongoing funding will allow us the money to successfully adapt our river management strategy to face the challenges of the future.