Govt funding secures reprieve for Franz Josef

Franz Josef. Photo: RNZ
Franz Josef. Photo: RNZ
The government's agreement to fund major flood protection work at Franz Josef Glacier has brought relief and new hope to the small tourist town that has taken a hammering in the past year from the impacts of Covid and the weather.

The first blow came with the March 2019 storm that took out the Waiho (Waiau) River bridge.

Then came the torrential rain and slips of December that closed the Haast highway at Mount Hercules, trapping nearly 1000 tourists in the village for several days.

With international tourism now stopped in its tracks by Covid-19, Franz Josef's restaurants, hotels and motels are up against it, with many closing their doors and letting staff go.

The approval this month of $24 million for West Coast Regional Council flood protection projects therefore has Westland Mayor Bruce Smith in jubilant spirits.

Franz Josef is expected to get the lion's share of the booty, although the regional council also put forward smaller projects in Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport, and ratepayers will also have to chip in if they want the work done.

"This is the most exciting day I've had since I've been mayor," Smith told the Greymouth Star when the funding was announced this month.

"We've been fighting for this for 15 years through successive governments. It'll make a massive difference to Franz having this investment in the community. It's wonderful - just brilliant."

About $4m would go into NZTA coffers to raise the bridge over the Waiho River by 2m, Smith said.

More than $18m would be needed for rock protection work on both banks of the river, which runs alongside the township.

A survey last year by a Waikato University team found the riverbed had gained nearly 3 million cubic metres of sediment in three years, causing it to rise 16cm.

That trend was likely to accelerate in coming decades with rapid climate change causing even more intense storms, dumping greater volumes of sediment in West Coast rivers, the researchers warned.

Smith said the government funding would pay for stopbanks on the north and south banks of the Waiho to be topped up, and for a new wall going past the heliports, curving in, then running straight down the side of the river.

"Its pretty straightforward, but it'll need a lot of rock and it's going to take between 18 months and two years to get the job done."

Even that will not be a permanent fix for the little glacier town, perched precisely on the Alpine Fault and next to an ever-rising riverbed.

"It'll be good for about 15 years, we reckon - but that buys us the time we need. We'll be spending close to $1m of the money on a town development plan to move Franz Josef gradually and quietly to the north, away from the hazards," Smith said.

The bonus was that the project would create about 60 jobs over the two years, helping the community through a lean time.

"That'll be great for the motels and restaurants - it'll take 60 beds out of the market and there'll be 60 men drinking in the bars every night - water, of course ..."

The regional council expects to hear by next Friday how much the government will allocate to each flood protection project and the terms and conditions attached to the funding, including co-funding percentages for the communities involved.

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Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.

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