Threat of erosion prompts state of emergency

A road in the area being eroded, as seen in a photo from last year. File photo
A road in the area being eroded, as seen in a photo from last year. File photo
A state of emergency has been declared in a coastal Southland settlement and residents have been told to prepare to leave at short notice because of the threat of erosion.

Southland District Mayor Rob Scott signed a local state of emergency for the Bluecliffs area at 10.50am today after heavy rain and sea swells led to increased erosion of the banks of the township and its landfill.

The erosion put homes at risk and the "precautionary" declaration would allow Emergency Management Southland to respond to  concerns around the threat to life and property.

The declaration comes after homeowners in Bluecliffs Beach Rd told the Otago Daily Times yesterday water was licking mere metres from structures, and there were genuine fears their homes were going to be swept away.

In August last year, the ODT reported the small hamlet at the mouth of the Waiau River at Te Waewae Bay — numbering 17 houses — had ongoing erosion problems as the spit which protected it was fading away.

Emergency Management Controller Simon Mapp today said while local residents were not required to evacuate, they should be prepared and watchful of the situation, and be ready to leave at short notice.

“Declaring this local emergency means we’re able to take steps for a physical opening of the bar at the Waiau River mouth to manage the river flow causing erosion.”

“At this stage we’re building our technical understanding of the risks in the area and what might be possible to provide this community with some more time to manage their retreat.”

The opening of the bar would be weighed against the risks. “This is a highly volatile area and that makes this a very difficult engineering task.”

Image: Google Maps
Image: Google Maps
Scott said conversations had been ongoing with the residents for some time.

“This has been helpful as we have had good local knowledge alongside technical information to be able to make this decision. We have been open with the community that this work comes with its own risks, and is most likely not going to provide a permanent solution, but will buy us time.

“Both council and Environment Southland have been monitoring the area actively since the 2023 September floods and this enables us to move quickly to open up the mouth of the Waiau and protect the properties and landfill from further erosion.”

The community landfill, which Southland District Council had started work on removing last year, was continuing to erode into the sea. After reports of explosives buried in the landfill came to light, works had  halted. Further options to manage the risk and remove the landfill are also being considered.

Community members were  being engaged in this process and alternative accommodation is available should they feel unsafe.

Environment Southland was planning the opening of the bar with contractors. Weather and tide considerations as well as working with Meridian Energy on river flows are key to the opening attempt.

Local resident Chris Wood airing concerns about the erosion last year. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Local resident Chris Wood airing concerns about the erosion last year. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Local resident Chris Wood said yesterday he and other residents were going to lose their homes.

"Fifteen years ago, we warned them. They did nothing and it’s come to this."

Part of a road had already washed into the sea, and residents feared their homes were next.

He believed those issues were finally coming to a head, Mr Wood said.

The sand bar that protected the homes had collapsed and the heavy rain in the region had caused the river to rise over 2m, he said.

"If not now, then soon. We have heavy rainfall forecast for the coming days in Fiordland and if the lakes overflow there, the water will be a raging torrent down here."