18 Apr 2023

River flood protections: Regional councils 'hopeful' over Budget bid

12:37 pm on 18 April 2023
Flooding in Wairoa after the river burst its banks due to heavy rain from Cyclone Gabrielle.

Flooding in Wairoa after the river burst its banks due to heavy rain from Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: Wairoa District Council's Emergency Controller

Documents - which have since been redacted - have revealed intentions for a multimillion-dollar Budget bid for river flood protection projects.

Regional councils say they would "seriously struggle to understand" if the government refuses the co-investment proposal after seeing the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.

It would see the government fork out $257 million to speed up 92 projects on rivers across New Zealand by up to five years, to get them in place ahead of future damaging storms.

The regional councils have also called for additional ongoing annual investment - starting at $100m, and rising to $250m in 2027.

Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty has confirmed the government is considering support for the councils, but any decisions will be communicated at the Budget.

Budget bid for co-investment fund

A briefing document to McAnulty in February included a paragraph detailing plans to submit the proposal for a co-investment fund for consideration in this year's Budget, noting an intention to take a paper to Cabinet in March if the bid progressed.

The paragraph has since been redacted, after RNZ asked questions about the scheme.

Regional councils had in December presented the proposal to McAnulty - who was associate minister at the time - calling for $257m in government funding over four years to accelerate 92 projects across New Zealand. Councils would contribute about $171m.

Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty speaks at a media briefing on the government's Three Waters revamp, 13 April 2023.

Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

It was the latest project put forward by the country's 16 regional councils and unitary authorities under the banner of Te Uru Kahika. Among other things, the group aims to bring New Zealand's river flood management up to agreed standards within a decade.

They reiterated the proposal to him - as well as Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Climate Change Minister James Shaw - in letters in mid-February after Cyclone Gabrielle.

"Cyclone Gabrielle will increase the pressure on Government to find immediate solutions. We believe our report provides you with an answer. We look forward to further discussions with you about how we can work together on this matter," the chairs of Bay of Plenty and Greater Wellington Councils Doug Leeder and Daran Ponter wrote.

A memo prepared by the group, titled "Lessons from Cyclone Gabrielle" also suggested additional ongoing investment - rising to $250m a year from the 2027/28 Financial Year.

A table showing suggested government investment into flood protections for rivers across New Zealand. This includes $257m over four years, plus ongoing annual funding. The annual funding increases from $100m a year in 2023/24, reaching $250m a year in 2027/28.

A table showing suggested government investment into flood protections for rivers across New Zealand. This includes $257m over four years, plus ongoing annual funding. Photo: Te Uru Kahika

"Confirmed, substantial and immediate co-investment in a long-term pipeline of river flood-risk resilience-improving infrastructure is the priority means of restoring the 'flood-damaged' confidence of New Zealanders," the memo said.

'Our luck is running out'

A report last year - even before Gabrielle - by property research firm CoreLogic and reinsurer Munich Re suggested river flooding was already costing New Zealand more than $100m a year, and rising.

Greater Wellington Regional Council chair Daran Ponter has been leading the flood protection project for Te Uru Kahika and told RNZ they would "seriously, seriously struggle to understand why a proposal of this nature at this time wasn't funded".

"What you see in the Hawke's Bay, and in places like Wairoa - when a flood bank fails, the effect can be catastrophic. It's not just a matter of people getting their feet wet, they don't have homes to go back to."

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Greater Wellington Regional Council chair Daran Ponter Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

"Our luck is running out and Cyclone Gabrielle was certainly a very stark reminder of that - which puts this particular report front and centre as far as we're concerned. We would be very, very concerned if the government were to dismiss this set of proposals."

He said the group was committed to the 92 projects in the proposal and would continue them even without government support, but the extra funding would bring them forward by up to five years - something the councils would not be able to achieve with rates alone.

"It's a national approach, it doesn't try to pick winners in any particular region, it just deals with the existing works," he said. "It also delivers the government a package of works that it hasn't had to call for from local government. It hasn't had to spend six months trying to work through which ones should be a priority, and which ones shouldn't - we've done all of that work and put it on a plate."

He said the Riverlink project in the Hutt Valley north of Wellington was already funded and therefore not part of the proposal, but served as an example of the kind of works involved.

"The flood stopbanks alongside the Hutt CBD are designed for a one-in-65-year return period," Ponter said. "One in 65 is less than Cyclone Gabrielle ... so it's just luck, effectively, that means that we're not dealing with catastrophic circumstances in Hutt Valley right now ... the design we are taking the Hutt Valley to is one-in-440.

"Those are the same types of numbers - not always the same return period, but the same times the numbers that we're talking in many of the other schemes that are in the proposal."

The case for the acceleration is laid out in detail in the group's Before the Deluge report written before Gabrielle, which lays out the strategic, economic, and financial imperatives.

It noted the roughly $200m annual operating costs of New Zealand's 367 such schemes protect about $11 billion worth of assets, and estimated a cost-benefit ratio of about 1:5 for flood protection schemes.

"For comparison, large economic infrastructure projects are considered economically viable if this ratio is greater than 1:1," it said.

Indeed, the ratio could be much higher, with the post-cyclone memo suggesting "the return on investment in flood resilience infrastructure is in the range of 1:6 to 1:8".

Ponter said the councils acknowledged river management had historically been a regional council responsibility, but given the urgency was hopeful the government would step up.

"It's going to be touch and go in some regions to actually be able to get these works done in advance of a significant event and some regions may get caught out, but the sooner we move on this stuff, the better - and the safer we'll all be.

"We would still end up saying that we think that this is a very firm priority for Budget 2023 for the government, we would be at a loss to understand how the government wasn't able to fund it," Ponter said.

He said the councils supported other measures the government was putting in place - such as better provisions in LIM reports - but there was no reason not to do both.

He was reluctant to call it a no-brainer, if only because he knows the government has other priorities to weigh up - particularly in dealing with the high cost of clean-up after the cyclone.

"I have desperately tried to avoid using that phrase. Yeah, I suppose it is - all I'm conscious of is that anybody coming knocking on the government's door ends up saying 'oh, it's a no-brainer'."

McAnulty confirmed the government was looking at the proposal.

"Obviously investment in flood protection can play a big part if you look at the work that went in just north of Gizzy through the Provincial Growth Fund, they say themselves that work stopped the town from flooding in the most recent event."

He knew the margins for regional councils were "incredibly tight".

"If you look at the [July 2021] weather event in Marlborough, the government came in with a 95 percent subsidy to assist their roads and they're still struggling with that 5 percent.

"We're aware of how important it is and we're also aware of how hard it is for regional councils to fund it by themselves, so we're looking at how we can help."

He said no one was suggesting central government take over the responsibility, however.

Ponter said he would have hoped the government would make a pre-Budget announcement or at least signal its intentions, but had heard nothing from the government beyond confirmation the proposal would be considered.

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