'Let's put the wall back up' - Westland District Council mayor Bruce Smith

1:53 pm on 4 April 2019

The Westland District Council is rejecting accusations by West Coast MP and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor that it's been "cavalier" in casting blame over flooding of the Waiho River.

Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor at the post-cabinet briefing on 17 December 2018.

West Coast MP and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The council said it would fight a regional council proposal to give up on stop banks and allow the river to follow its natural path - even if that meant properties on the floodplain would suffer.

Mr O'Connor yesterday said the Westland district mayor had been playing politics rather than being realistic about the future of the Franz Josef area.

"It's an election year, unfortunately, and councils down there have been battling for quite some time. This has been an issue around since the 90s."

Tim Davies of the University of Canterbury has been carrying out investigations and research on the Waiho River since the early 1990s.

"It's one of the most dynamic river systems in the world and the recent report by Tim Davies pointed out the fact that you can't sustain the current management system that they have there to just put stop banks up and up and up."

Letting the river return to its natural course would be one of the options, he said.

The Waiho Bridge on State Highway 6.

The Waiho Bridge on State Highway 6 last week washed away after torrential rain battered the West Coast for two days. Photo: Wayne Costello / DOC

"The gravel continues to be washed down from the southern Alps and it has to go somewhere. No amount of engineering is going to stop that."

He said it was a dilemma that had been coming, but "councils have had their heads in the sand" allowing development on both the north and south side.

NZTA had been doing a huge amount of work, lifting the bridge, keeping the road link open, he said.

"It's now been broken, it's time for some honest discussions and politicking by the local mayor thinking that you can carry on as is happened in the last 100 years is simply unrealistic."

Mr O'Connor said he'd like to know whether the recent developments on the south side had included in their LIMs a clear warning about the flood risk.

"It's always been a flood plain, it's always been at risk and the level of investment on the floodplains is the issue we're talking about," he said.

"We have a township on the north side, we have lesser investments on the south side. That's the kind of dilemma that the councils should be working together on, not pointing fingers in a cavalier way that the Westland District Council has been."

The Waiho Bridge has been totally taken out by the weather hitting Westland.

The Waiho Bridge has been totally taken out by the weather hitting Westland. Photo: Civil Defence West Coast

After a risk report in 1997, he said, people were shifted from the south side. The current situation poses another level of risk but he was prepared to advocate for the local people within Cabinet but there needed to be some honesty from local government leaders and "not grandstanding," Mr O'Connor said.

"I will be honest with people down there, it's no good trying to kid them that someone's going to waltz in and just write out a cheque and they can wander away. There'll be hardship but just getting to a sensible solution is what we have to do."

Shunning the option of letting the river run, Westland District Mayor Bruce Smith told Morning Report that the residents of the south side wanted to start the rebuild of the wall straight away.

"There's 82 residents, 18 kids, 19 separate farm properties, 40 dwellings ... it's bigger than Okarito, it's bigger than Bruce Bay."

The West Coast Regional Council is, however, considering removing the Waiho River's stopbanks at Franz Josef and letting it revert to its old flood plain, potentially swallowing up thousands of hectares of farmland.

"On the West Coast, every river is building up gravel. This is an issue where there is no action being taken. They [West Coast Regional Council] want to write a report on it for heaven's sake," he said.

"Let's put the wall back up."

Mr Smith said he hadn't studied the LIM reports of the properties but was sure they would have stated if a property was on a flood plain.

"Any person knows that if they build beside a river, at some stage in their lives, they'll be dealing with an erosion problem. It's how it works ... we react, we've got to protect our people," he said.

"There's a considerable economic value there, these people are not going to walk away."

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