Scheme may have protected Westport

Westport could have been protected from the devastation of last week’s one-in-a-hundred-year...
Westport could have been protected from the devastation of last week’s one-in-a-hundred-year flood if a proposed multimillion-dollar flood protection scheme was already in place, a West Coast Regional Council staff member says. PHOTO: THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD
A multimillion-dollar flood protection scheme proposed for Westport would have prevented most of the devastation caused by last weekend’s massive flood, according to the West Coast Regional Council’s operations director Randal Beal.

The council has included the Westport project in its 2021-31 long-term plan, which is yet to be released to the public.

Mr Beal said the scheme involved extensive stopbanks and floodwalls – essentially ringfencing the town from the Buller and Orowaiti Rivers and would cost $10.2 million.

‘‘It is designed for a one-in-a-hundred-year flood in the Buller ... and whether it would have protected the town this time, the simple answer is yes, unless there was a floodbank failure,’’ Mr Beale said.

‘‘There would likely still have been surface flooding damage to some properties from storm water but not to the same extent or over widespread areas.’’

The regional council originally pitched the project to Westport ratepayers in 2017 but they had little appetite for it, Mr Beal said.

Only 10.8% of respondents supported it; 24.6% preferred to do nothing about their town’s flood risk and 30% had no opinion.

‘‘It would have been an expense for ratepayers, certainly, and without a majority supporting it we couldn’t go ahead,’’ Mr Beal said.

The regional council also tried pitching the Westport flood protection scheme to the Government last year, for funding as a shovel-ready project, but it was turned down.

The town was granted a small amount to upgrade its flood warning telemetry system, while larger grants went to stopbank projects in Franz Josef, Greymouth and Hokitika.

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine said Westport would need to renew its discussion about flood risk but last weekend’s event had set new benchmarks for the kind of protection the town would need in future.

Sixty-five homes had been red-stickered or condemned by late Tuesday, and more likely to suffer the same fate after the raging Buller sent floodwater surging into the Orowaiti, and overland across farms and low-lying residential areas.

Mr Cleine said the flood defied all previous modelling and some ideas that had previously been put forward as solutions to protect the town would have been of little use.

In a letter to local papers last week, former Westport mayor Pat O’Dea berated councils for failing to remove gravel from the bed of the Buller and keep the Orowaiti overflow clear of vegetation.

‘‘I believe the Buller River poses a major threat to the lives and property of the people of Westport and its immediate surrounds ... councils are doing nothing to fix the problem, which is the riverbed getting continually higher.’’

The riverbed at low tide was higher than at any time in recent decades and the Orowaiti overflow was completely overgrown, Mr O’Dea said.

‘‘All this will see the river cut through behind the O’Conor Home and flood many areas of Westport ... the engineers that designed the harbour and the town’s protection would turn in their graves to see how the area is at risk because of the lack of maintenance of the critical safety valves.’’

Mr Cleine said no amount of gravel removal or clearing willows would have stopped what happened last weekend.

‘‘In a flood this size, the riverbed becomes irrelevant — the water is metres above it and in this case, the volume and force of the water was so great, even the high tide had no effect on it.

‘‘Usually, you get a surge and peak at high tide but not with the Buller — not this time — it just kept pushing out to sea and there was no difference in the flooding level. That’s how huge it was.’’

Westport people will have a chance to reconsider the $10.2million stopbank and floodwall plan for their town, and a second, cheaper, option with partial stopbanks, when the regional council’s long-awaited long-term plan is released for community consultation.

At this point, the long-term plan with details of a possibly hefty general rate rise, is still with the auditors.

- By Lois Williams, local democracy reporter

Comments

We must invest now to adapt to our changing climate.

Nothing to do with changing climate, it's the location. This area has flooded far higher and well before industrialization had anything to do with enviromental impacts.

Quote: "The regional council also tried pitching the Westport flood protection scheme to the Government last year, for funding as a shovel-ready project, but it was turned down."
There would be an expectation that the current goverment has seen the error of that decision, and would now reconsider it's implementation. Asking a small community to stump up the entire cost would rate many from their homes, as if flooding them out wasn't bad enough. A stunningly pretty place with outstanding community spirit, they deserve better. The government has prospered enormously from the coast, yet has taken so much away.

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