Rejection of application to assess Franz Josef shows lack of understanding


The Minister for Regional Development Shane Jones has rejected an application to assess the suitability of Franz Josef for relocation. The rejection of the application, which came in the wake of destructive floods in March and growing concerns about its safety in an Alpine Fault earthquake, indicates a lack of understanding about the dangers posed to the popular West Coast township.

My main concern is that this will unnecessarily increase the risk to residents and visitors to the township. All residents and visitors have a right to be safe in the township during an emergency event, that structures and natural features have been subject to an E.I.M. assessment and matching appropriate steps have been taken:

  • E is ELIMINATE – ELIMINATE the hazard, whether it securing the parapets, chimneys of buildings to make sure they do not collapse onto the street or into adjacent buildigns
  • I is ISOLATE – ISOLATE is what gets done when a hazard cannot be eliminated, requires the separation of the hazardous feature and possibly a buffer zone around it to contain it if still dangerous
  • M is MINIMISE – MINIMISE the hazard if it cannot be ELIMINATED or ISOLATED, by diverting, removing or stopping all non essential functions/features/activities in the vicinity of the hazard

We cannot ELIMINATE the Alpine Fault and the Waiho River. We cannot ISOLATE their reach in Franz Josef’s current location. MINIMISING the risk by relocation off the probable area of the fault scarp and the active Waiho River bed is the best way of reducing the likely damage. The town would be immediately and violently subject to any Alpine Fault earthquake with massive disruption of power, water and sewerage, road and telecommunication links. A fault scarp possibly 2-5 metres high would rupture right through the township with 8 metres or more lateral displacement. The only thing therefore to do is either move all of the non-essential infrastructure of the township away from its current location and establish somewhere else or move the whole town. Neither option is going to be cheap and will probably result in having to buy up land somewhere.

One has to accept that there will still be considerable damage in Franz Josef even if it does get moved. However infrastructure will be far more quickly repaired. It will be spared the likely landslide dam burst emergency that would occur in the Callery River catchment immediately upstream of the Waiho River bridge. And most importantly it would be spared the massive ground damage that would be caused by the surface rupture and which alone would take months to begin to repair – if at all.

The ugly reality facing Franz Josef


Franz Josef is a picturesque town in Westland District. It is nestled against the lower flank of the Southern Alps, with the Waiho River immediately to the south of the township. The town and the nearby Franz Josef Glacier are named after the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, by explorer and geologist Julius von Haast.

But for all of its mighty charm nestled in temperate rainforest, Franz Josef is caught between a rock and a hard place. In terms of geological and geomorphological hazards it is in a location that in the long term, and increasingly likely in the short term, untenable. This article takes a look at the danger facing Franz Josef.

Why?

New Zealand straddles the boundary of two tectonic plates. To the west is the Indo-Australian Plate and to the east is the Pacific Plate. The onshore boundary is denoted by the Alpine Fault, a large fault line with a repose period of 300-350 years and a tendency to only move in magnitude 8.0+ earthquakes. The last one was about 1717AD.This onshore boundary is where about 25-30mm of tectonic uplift occur per annum as well as a similar amount of erosion, which means there is a continuous supply of sediment waiting to enter the catchments of the West Coast and east coast rivers.

This relentless uplift creates a lovely mountain range with steep hydrology – from the summit of Mt Cook to the Tasman Sea is about 45 kilometres. Being in the prevailing westerly belt of winds that sailors call the “Roaring Forties” because of the latitude, moist westerly air comes off the Tasman Sea and empties its moisture content – often over 200 millimetres and up to 500 millimetres in a day – on the West Coast side. Unsurprisingly flooding becomes a major problem.

How does this affect Franz Josef?

Immediately after one crosses the Waiho River heading south, the road takes a hard right turn. In the corner is a hotel that sits behind a substantial stop bank. On the other side of that stop bank is a riverbed that is rising at a rate of about 300mm each year. The rise is because a large volume of sediment is continually entering the Waiho catchment. This poses an increasing flood risk on a river where water levels start responding to heavy rain in less than an hour.

Franz Josef straddles the Alpine Fault, which runs right through the middle of the township. It crosses the Waiho River in the immediate vicinity of the Milton Hotel, which was flooded and suffered severe damage in a 2016 outbreak. Westland District Council published Plan Change 7 (P.C.7), which was meant to identify a zone through central Franz Josef, where there is high confidence of the Alpine Fault’s exact location, with a view to moving essential services and businesses out of the zone. However after considerable public opposition, P.C.7 was scrapped.

When?

Time is running out. The stop bank is about as tall as it can realistically get without massive supporting earth works. When the river tops it, it will start eroding away the stop bank and try to reclaim the riverbed that the stop bank was originally built over. This may claim several farms when it happens.

But there is a bigger problem. The Alpine Fault is now due for another earthquake. Should it rupture whilst Franz Josef is in its current location, the town will be subject to immediate and unmistakably violent shaking lasting up to 3 minutes. There will be between 8-10 metres lateral displacement to the right and up to 3 metres vertical displacement. Only the newest structures would probably be still standing.

Before then though, there may be another rain storm of similar magnitude to the one that occurred between 25-27 March. Should that happen, similar damage to what happened as a result of that storm should be expected. This has a high probability of including the bridge over the Waiho River, which was destroyed on Tuesday 26 March. The next rain fall event might not even need to be that big.

What is the solution?

In the absence of P.C. 7 existing, one option is to give up on the stop bank and let the Waiho River reclaim the riverbed. The problem here is that several farms and the air field would have to move. It also does not address the long term problem of the Alpine Fault. Perhaps the most feasible option is progressively relocate Franz Josef township’s population and amenities to neighbouring towns. Westland District Council and West Coast Regional Council have a duty of care to the residents and the tourists and other visitors to their District/Region to make sure that they are in no undue danger.

Where could the people go?

There are several nearby townships where the people of Franz Josef could be moved to. Ross and Whataroa are two, though these are quite near the Alpine Fault. Harihari is a third. All are on the same road, State Highway 6, as Franz Josef. It would be likely that West Coast Regional Council and Westland District Council would need to prepare a joint request for Government assistance purchasing land and working out appropriate resource management issues.

For their part the Government would most likely need to provide assistance. The West Coast is economically one of the poorer parts of New Zealand. It has a small rate payer base and this has a good chance, even if well planned and executed, of blowing whatever budget is set. And if the plan went ahead, it might have to be applied to Fox Glacier as well, as it too is very near the Alpine Fault.

 

 

South Island being short changed by Government


“Everybody south of the Bombay Hills” is a common reference to everyone not living in Auckland. It is generally used in the context of political commentary on Government decisions where New Zealanders not living in Auckland are likely to come distant second in Government funding or policy announcements.

The recent announcement by Minister of Transport Phil Twyford that billions of dollars are to be spent on Auckland and other North Island transport projects was a rude jolt for many in the South Island. Whilst an announcement on funding for the Southern Motorway was made for Christchurch, there was precious little else for the South Island to be happy with. It broke a promise that Labour made to spend $100 million on trains for Christchurch. It ignored the West Coast, Otago, Nelson, Marlborough and Southland completely.

But worst of all it sent a message to people south of Cook Strait that they are not important.

Yet people wonder why the South Island is getting so frustrated. Much of the power that is generated in the South Island goes to the North Island This has been the case for years and I am assured by a friend in the know that the Police keep a permanent watch on the Cook Strait cable to make sure no one interferes with it.

I am not so surprised by the resentment. It has been around for years and at times has gotten strong enough as to give rise to small political parties that have the vision of separating the South Island or at least making much more effort to include South Island interests on the Government agenda. It has given rise to internet based groups that have – among other things looked at alternative flag designs for the South Island.

Richard Prosser, former New Zealand First list Member of Parliament might have seemed a lone wolf in the mist when he advocated for South Island separatism before entering Parliament. However he was not the first. Nor the last. In 1999 the South Island Party stood at the General Election and got 2,622 votes. Not many, but the fact that it became a verified party with 500+ paying members suggests that such sentiment is capable of becoming more organized. The South Island Party disbanded and another party that replaced it never got enough paying members to be verified as a legitimate party.

Still, one cannot help but wonder what it would take for South Island nationalism to start creeping back into the fringes of New Zealand politics. How many more policy and budget announcements that short change the 1.1 million New Zealanders south of Cook Strait could be tolerated?

The answer might not be as many as people think.

Local Government Act 2002 becoming convoluted


As we approach the end of the third term of this Government, it is important to look back at how the legislation defining local government in New Zealand has changed. Since 2008, a number of changes have been made that significantly alter how local councils operate and the obligations that they are expected to meet. As many of these changes have flown under the radar many New Zealanders are not aware that they even happened.

To understand how the Local Government Act 2002 came to be in its current state, we need to look at prior legislation. One of these prior Acts of Parliament is the Local Government Act 1974, which among other things made provision for the establishment of District Councils, Regional Councils, Unitary Authorities,

Prior to the 2002 Act being passed by Parliament, the 1974 legislation was quite prescriptive in terms of what councils were permitted to do. The newer legislation gave councils the flexibility to choose activities and how they are undertaken, viewed as relating to general competence and applicable in equal terms to both regional councils and territorial authorities. Since then these changes have been amended by the Local Government Amendment Act, 2010. This was prompted by public perceptions that there were councils over reaching their prescribed mandate to spend money on activities and items that are not permitted in the Local Government Act.

One such case was Kaipara District Council which in the end was found to have not breached the Act, after a dispute over the Mangawhai waste water scheme. The Auditor General agreed to pay out $5.4 million in settling the dispute.

Another is Westland District Council, which has been found wanting over repairs to infrastructure damaged by flooding in 2016. W.D.C. have had a long, drawn out and at times messy public dispute with key council managers and the Chief Executive, which have led to some high profile resignations. Although it is not clear if the Act was breached, given that a cake decorating firm with no prior knowledge of waste water was involved in a multi-million dollar contract, I think it is safe to say something went wrong.

In acknowledging the 1974 Local Government Act and the 2002 Local Government Act, it is important to briefly acknowledge the 1989 Local Government Amendment Act. This Act acknowledged that the increasingly complex, convoluted and potentially dysfunctional L.G.A. 1974 needed a significant overhaul. To that end it dismantled or merged 850 separate bodies into 86. Of those 850 there had been 249 municipalities and the other 601 were catchment boards, drainage boards and harbour boards. The current configuration includes 13 regional councils and 73 territorial authorities (City and District Councils).

In 2012 there were changes made that repealed Sections 91 and 92, which pertain to the processes for identifying community outcomes and obligations to report against said community outcomes. This essentially meant councils were no longer obligated to indicate how they were progressing in terms of creating healthy integrated communities, compared with the outcomes identified in council planning papers. In the same year, the powers of the Minister were significantly increased (s257-259) so as to permit the appointment of a Crown Observer, Crown Manager, a Commision or even calling of general elections of a council in place of one thought to be incapable of performing its statutory obligations.

I fear that if too many more Amendment Acts are passed that the Local Government Act 2002 will be too convoluted to remain in existence, thereby becoming obsolete.

So, what is really going on at Westland District Council?


 

On 17 March 2016, after days of torrential rain, the Waiho River at Franz Josef finally did something that council planners and consultants had been warning of for years: it broke through the banks swamping large parts of abandoned flood plain, causing $30 million in damage around the township.

The Westland District Council knew this was going to happen. A report in The Press states that at least four separate reports over the space of as many years warned their assets management team that such an event was inevitable. One did not need to be a council planner to know that the Waiho River, as long as its flood plain was choked by a stop bank would continue relentlessly piling up against it and eventually over top the bank. Hazard Management students on field trips have frequently visited the area to learn about the interplay between the Waiho River, the town and the Alpine Fault (which is beyond the scope of this article).

The photo below was taken in 2005 whilst on a field trip by myself of a flood warning sign on the south bank, recognizing the risk of a debris dam failure in the upper reaches of the Waiho River catchment. Whilst a debris dam failure was not involved in this flood, an event caused by one would be more than sufficient to over top the bank.

With such wide knowledge of the flood hazard, and in an era of heightened hazard awareness, how and why did the W.D.C. come to a decision not to act on the warnings. To answer that we need ask the question:

So what is going on at Westland District Council?

The floods caused serious damage to a hotel, the sewerage treatment ponds and town water supply. They caused damage to the stop banks protecting numerous businesses and over 200 people had to be evacuated.

After the announcement that the Westland District Council  Asset Management team Manager Vivek Goel was placed on leave, it was announced that the Serious Fraud Office was investigating whether or not Mr Goel had been involved in fraudulent practices. As Manager of the Asset team, it was Mr Goel’s task to ensure that the infrastructure he was responsible for would at the very least handle natural events expected to happen in its lifetime. It had been found that to replace the sewerage oxidation ponds, Mr Goel had planned to build a sewerage intensive treatment plant and had sourced his own contractor to do the work. The contractor, a cake decorator with no prior knowledge of asset management, was awarded a $7 million contract to . As of 31 March, Vivek Goel was reported as having left the W.D.C by the Greymouth Star

But what of the actual failure to act on the warnings? Was it incompetence – simply someone not fit to be handling such critical assets being caught in a job that they did not know how to do? Prior to working for W.D.C. Mr Goel was an employee of Taranaki District Council, which he left in 2010.

In a climate of reasonably increased expectations post Christchurch earthquake, ratepayers across New Zealand do not any longer accept the potential for bad planning. The realisation and understanding that as ratepayers, they have a right ot know that there will be a duty of care which the W.D.C. – like any other council has – to the visitors, the locals alike.