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Head in the sand?

Actually, we are well above water

By Pauline Stewart

The photos and video footage are dramatic there is no doubt. Huge slips plummeting down the hillsides on to the highway; trees, soil and small rocks slip-sliding across the roads blocking access to neighbouring towns; water spilling from the rivers and streams and the tides of the ocean covering sections of a few of the main thoroughfares. Waves pounding at the deck of the Mercury Bay Boating Club forcing it to be relocated back 40 metres.

There is a lot in the media about this. In this issue of The Informer, it is the content of letters, articles, the guest editorial. The drama of it is there and in many ways, few are surprised.

Everyone who travels to and from Whitianga or Coromandel town from Thames is familiar with the fact that little change has occurred on State Highway 25 since the first stage was opened in 1967 and the same with the ensuing stages. It simply hasn’t changed. We are just as familiar with the huge additions in the amount of traffic using the roads and whatever our view on climate change, we don’t argue with the facts that many more people are experiencing the effects of storms and rain on these roads. The population has increased, there are more holiday makers, freight and service industries have multiplied.

People love the Coromandel Peninsula. Personally, I have come to love living in Whitianga. It is not less beautiful because it’s popular; it is the same fragile and amazing part of the world. We need to embrace that this is a wonderland to offer - a rich resource of food and pleasure and peace - a destination where more people can live safely. Forget the ‘uninhabitable’ comment regarding access by road. The culture of possibility regarding transport needs now to be addressed by everyone including those south of the Bombay Hills.

What is not very clear and overlooked is how the actual living spaces of residents have fared during these storms and acutely high level rainfalls and winds. I refer mainly to Whitianga and Mercury Bay. When the rains began, people started to reluctantly say goodbye to their holiday and drive south; not because they were flooded or their accomodation were being washed away, but because they knew the roads would be impassable to their getting home.

But through everything, the infrastructure of Whitianga served the town and suburbs well. I asked Peter Abrahamson about this. He is involved with a team of engineers at Waterways and has been with the development for many years. In response, Peter gathered information from the Waterways engineer about how the Waterways Development which is a big part of this town’s progressive situation has profoundly effected the way Whitianga has fared during one of the worst periods of rainfall and storms on record.

In summary, the findings are that Whitianga has done very well. “Infrastructure is the key to avoid flooding” says the engineers report. “The recent excessive rain events have not seen the historical flooding patterns. Such rain events in the past would have seen some streets and houses inundated. But it hasn’t happened and a major part is due to recent stages of the Whitianga Waterways development.”

At its inception, stormwater benefits to the existing township were identified as a key component of the development. Early on as part of construction, a perimeter drain diverting flows away from the township through a large network of new drains was constructed collecting and directing flows towards the estuary.

The development of the canal system diverted approx 140ha of catchment away from the flowpaths previously directed to township flowpaths. The canals intercept potential flood flows, directing surface waters to tidal canals, where the broad canal profiles suffer only limited flood water level change. In summary, the waterways development has helped the entire town.”

I am aware that not everyone can afford to live on the waterways but everyone in this town is clearly in the sights of Peter Abrahamson and the ‘brain children’ behind this kind of development, the Hopper family, not just Leigh, but his father and grandfather before him.

Peter comments, “Designated flow paths are designed into the subdivisions to direct potential flood flows to canals for storms greater than the 1 in 10 year event (up to the 1 in 100 year event) generally to avoid impact on private property. With the expectation that storms may increase in frequency and intensity, engineers have factored in these potential increases.”

Our communities on the East Coast are susceptible to high rain fall events from the tropics but now we can also be very resilient - new products, new standards and regulations, new engineering know-how - in the face of such events.

Whitianga is developing a very safe urban environment without the need for costly infrastructure. It is this story that is not being told . To say that communities are becoming ‘uninhabitable’ is blind to the vision that is possible. It is the transport to these communities that has not been able to afford the engineering know-how or afford to upgrade and enact sustainable maintenance. This can be fixed.

People searching for a better way of life without the need for costly infrastructure, can be invited to find their way put of the chaotic infrastructure of Auckland. The pressure on housing will not cease; and the infrastructure tells its sorry tale. Whitianga can open its arms to those who can work remotely and others soon retiring and sustain a life away from the city. Whitianga could help the housing crisis for Auckland. Every Aucklander that chooses to vacate the area creates opportunity for another resident or working family at a different stage of life to move to the city for their necessary work.

Our heads are above water here. Whitianga will help the rest of the Coromandel Peninsula do well - living safely in a healthy environment. It is true that in some ways for some years we have had ‘the head in the sand’ syndrome. It tempts all of us in relation to climate change, sea levels, and facing problems head on with vigour. I do believe decisive action, taking some risks and investing decent sums of money into transport and local businesses will save us from the sand. I appreciate the Waterways. I hope they can be shared with more people from more walks of life.

Note: The Ngarahutunoa Catchment (Draining through the golf course) and the Taputapuatea Catchment (draining via Taputapuatea/Mother Brown stream to Buffalo Beach) are both very large catchments (over 400ha and 800ha respectively.) Previously, these would flood the flatlands either individually or combined, depending on the storm event direction of approach. The numerous interconnected paddock drains could allow flood waters from either catchment to overtop into various flood basins adjoining the township, allowing flood flows through the residential and commercial developments. Significant flows were previously directed to the Whitianga Estuary via smaller and more numerous networks - not adequate or sustainable.


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