Coast council raids piggy bank to protect Westport
Emergency spending on river-bank repairs is welcomed in the West Coast town hit by floods twice in the past eight months
The West Coast Regional Council is draining its catastrophe fund and taking on more debt to carry out urgent flood protection work for Westport.
At an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday, the council agreed to spend nearly $2.7 million to shore up the banks of the Buller River in two places badly eroded by recent floods.
The job’s been costed at twice the council’s original estimate after expert engineers examined the damage more closely.
But Westport’s O’Conor rest home and the town itself are at risk while the work remains undone, a council report says.
In the July 2021 flood, the river banks were eroded for 260m upstream of the home, and further upstream the river scoured out rock walls protecting the banks next to Organs Island.
February’s flood only made things worse.
The river has now formed a “high-velocity” channel near the rest of home, making repairs crucial, the council report says.
rock and roll
To protect the area, 13,000 tonnes of rock will be needed at a cost of more than $900,000, the council’s engineering team says.
At Organs Island, near the crucial Orowaiti River overflow, the council will need to spend about $1.7 million to fix flood damage and stop ongoing erosion.
“If this rock wall is not repaired then further floods are likely to cause increasingly severe damage potentially affecting the course of the Buller River and the outflows into the Orowaiti River channel,” the report says.
“If this were to occur, there would be a heightened risk of Westport being flooded … with potential risk of loss of life.”
Design work is under way for a comprehensive answer to Westport’s flood threat after the regional council gained approval from ratepayers last year for a circular embankment scheme around the town at a cost of more than $10 million.
The scheme is to take into account climate change and sea-level rise.
Government funding sought
But the emergency work at Organs Island and near O’Conor Home fell outside the scope of that plan and its budget.
The council is hoping the government will co-fund the long-term project, after a technical advisory group and joint steering committee present the detailed plan to Cabinet in July.
Protecting the two areas of bank erosion will keep the Buller River in check and ultimately protect the proposed embankments and flood walls, it says.
“This gives rise to the question of whether, as a show of good faith and commitment, central government could be persuaded to make an upfront investment in the Buller erosion sites … as an integral part of a multi-tool approach required to secure Westport’s resilience against flooding.”
But council chief executive Heather Mabin says discussions with government agencies have ruled out an immediate cash injection and the cost of the urgent work will have to be added to the business case for the larger scheme.
In the meantime, the repairs cannot wait, the council has decided.
Councilors voted unanimously to liquidate the regional catastrophe fund of $982,184 and borrow the remaining $1.7 million short-term to pay for the work.
Westport Mayor Jamie Cleine says the funding decision is good news for a town that’s been hit by floods twice in eight months.
“The design team is making progress on the main project but it will be a relief for people to see some physical work happening now putting back what was there.”
The council has about $12 million in an investment portfolio and total debt of $8.6 million.
And although it has blown its catastrophe fund and taken on more debt, Mabin says Tuesday’s decision is a good one.
“The council is keen to help Westport. If we were to have another catastrophe now, we would just have to find the money from somewhere.”
Councilor Laura Coll McLaughlin, a Buller representative on the regional council, says the decision will ease some of the fears Westport people have been living with since the floods.
“People have been very anxious so this will help. We’re expecting tenders to go out for the repairs by May 20 and work should be starting in June.”
West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O’Connor says the government is aware of the challenges facing Westport and the financial pressures on the regional council.
There is still some debate about the best solution for Westport’s flooding problem, he says.
“But it’s good to see the council moving on this and the government will certainly look at the case for covering the urgent work.”
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund