Everyone I speak to at the moment sounds the same alarm. Winter is around the corner and clean-up is barely underway. The risk to growers and farmers, and the wider community, is massive.

The need to clear land and begin remediation is desparate to avoid various scenarios, one of which is the silt drying and creating dust storms come spring.

That means flood debris needs to be cleared or disposed of. Regional Councillor Xan Harding said if most blocks can be in recovery by winter, cover crops can be planted to start remediation and put soils into a condition where they can be growing annual crops next spring.

But the issue has been deciding what to do with it all, and then paying for it.

That said, the Silt Taskforce, currently spending $1.2 million a week on silt collection with 26 crews on the ground and 900 truck movements per day, has collected approximately 185,000m3, as against an estimated 5-6 million cubes to be disposed of.

Silt collection

A burning question

Landowners having to deal with the massive issue of flood debris on their properties are still waiting for a decision about whether or not they’ll be allowed to burn it.

The issue is a complex one – the waste is often a mix of woody debris, silts and farm infrastructure such as tanalised posts, wire and plastic irrigation tubing – far from ideal to burn and therefore prohibited. But sorting the waste into different streams for disposal is highly impractical, and some say, impossible to do efficiently or safely.

The sheer amounts of waste to clear are overwhelming in some instances, as BayBuzz reported earlier with the example of Lesley Wilson of Puketapu.

Regional Councillor Jerf van Beek recently ran a trial on his property to establish the feasibility of waste sorting, with a highly experienced operator using a large piece of machinery.

“What it aimed to do was get an understanding of this orchard waste issue. It came at quite a cost to do it. To me, it proved the point that from a pragmatic point of view, it is impossible to both pick it up and transport it offsite to a dumpsite, where it would be picked apart efficiently and safely, because there is so much wire mixed in there.

“It was impossible, once orchards have fallen over on top of each other, to separate the wire, posts and plastic irrigation out of it and only be left with wood.”

However, van Beek, who has been advising the Ministry for the Environment on the issue, said it had been possible to separate out the vast majority of tanalised posts from possible burn piles. If burns were conducted properly, with lots of oxygen and heat, the burn would be very clean and not create smoke and particulates, he said.

The trial, on about 5.5 hectares of his land, took six days and cost $31,000. And while around $20,000 worth of posts were recovered, he said growers wouldn’t go near them.

“We need trustworthy postings that can be firmed up, so that orchards don’t fall over. Rockit, for example, have done a stellar job and none of those blocks fell over because they spent a lot of money on the support infrastructure. By the time we sell those old posts to farmers, the money it takes to sort, cut, bundle and transport, it’s a zero balance the way I see it.”

Councillor Xan Harding was of the same mind. His preference was for controlled burning, but the council is still deliberating. 

“My personal opinion is that it should be a tool in the toolbox, and landowners have waited a long time already after having an assurance that council will help them take stuff away.

“And we have as councillors talked with the primary sector about getting things done before winter, because you lose the opportunity work land and to start to recover the soils. 

“These are soils waiting to happen and they can recover to productivity quite quickly and could be used for short-term cropping next year to help develop the soils again and to provide cashflow. If we don’t get these silts under control, they will be blowing back into town.”

The recently passed Severe Weather Emergency Legislation makes it possible for responsible Ministers to issue Orders in Council. These orders, approved by the Governor General, bypass Parliament but make it possible for Regional Council to approve recovery activities such as burning that would otherwise be strictly prohibited. 

But Harding says this would require an “artful balance”. In the past, Regional Council has enforced burning prohibitions, and brought successful prosecutions for bad behaviour.

However, the financial cost of recovery alternatives are enormous and only partially funded. There are indirect costs too – such as road congestion; fuel burning in the cleanup, equipment and gear; extra landfill capacity; and windblown silt. These probably outweigh the environmental effects of controlled burning, he said.

Harding said the issue was one of the top priorities for the Regional Council’s newly appointed interim chief executive Bill Bayfield in the next couple of weeks, and that as a councillor he would be pushing for it.

“If burning is the solution it doesn’t mean that it needs to happen immediately but the pre-work can happen. If 5% of a paddock is unusable in the short term, that’s ok for the longer-term remediation,” he said. Burning isn’t necessary in every situation either. The impacts of the flood vary widely depending on the property. Some could be chipped and composted, for example.

“Burning should be one of the tools that’s enabled. It’s difficult, it’s one of the hardest things we have to deal with from a policy point of view, these hard-baked prohibitions. You have a commitment from council to uphold existing regulation.

“But, by the same token, as rurally-grounded councillors we have been doing our best to help the primary sector to navigate through that morass and the slow processes of central government to get an outcome that everyone can live with. Council is working really hard to find recycling pathways, but there is also this question of time and cost – this trifecta if you like.”

Funding help approved, but still a drop in the ocean

Until this week the question of who was going to pay for all this was unresolved, but on Wednesday, the Government announced a funding package. It won’t be enough, but it’s a welcome start.

Councils in flood affected regions will get $102 million to help process and dispose of debris from residential properties and to deal with sediment on council land, while $70m has been made available for commercial properties (including farmers and growers) to help clean up their land and return them to production. Money is also available for the removal of debris and sediment from whenua Māori.

Of this, $133.2m has been allocated for Hawke’s Bay with the remaining $39m for Tairāwhiti.

Regional Council chair Hinewai Ormsby said the money was a good start and had been a long time coming. “Further details, however, are needed to understand the Government’s support. Our region is facing its largest waste management clean-up ever and our committed funding is already stretched to the limit.”

BayBuzz spoke to Harding before this announcement was made, and he had said that the size and cost of remediation was “absolutely enormous – hundreds of millions of dollars”. 

Prior to the announcement, both Regional Council and industry body Hort NZ had lobbied Wellington for funding to prevent ongoing impacts on the livelihoods of businesses and the social and economic fabric of Hawke’s Bay.

As BayBuzz reported several weeks ago, a yet to be released report by Boston Consulting Group commissioned by Hort NZ and Rockit estimates ongoing economic losses totaling $3.5 billion over the next 10 years for Hawke’s Bay horticulture if no government support arrived quickly. The projected loss had come on top of the sector’s own findings, which had put a $1.5b price tag on crop losses and re-establishment costs for 2023 alone.

Van Beek said the funding relief was good news and that a second round was likely to be sought.

“We don’t want to chuck large amounts of money at this, we actually want to manage it well. It’s so easy to be wasteful in this situation and I see plenty of it, but as a taxpayer I am paying for it. When it comes to wood waste on productive land, we need to really be quick because winter is coming. I always said by 1 June and it’s now a month away.”

Public Interest Journalism funded by New Zealand on Air.


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