HBRC Chair Hinewai Ormsby

Stopbanks, gravel and silt are to the HB Regional Council what roads, bridges and ‘3 Waters’ are to our territorial authorities.

A huge budget-busting infrastructure challenge.

When I interviewed HBRC Chair Hinewai Ormsby recently, flood protection was top of mind. HBRC moved immediately in the Cyclone Gabrielle aftermath to repair damaged stopbanks or construct temporary fixes. 

By June HBRC was reporting repairs to five kilometres of stopbanks on the Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri rivers had been completed. One example is the Taradale stopbank upgrade, which increased the height by up to one metre and gave the stopbank a wider base to reinforce its ability to hold floodwater.

In Central Hawke’s Bay, gravel extraction was taking place at 62 sites across the Upper Tukituki and Waipawa rivers, as well as on several streams. The re-diversion and stop-banking to reinstate the Waipawa River flow back towards the Tukituki rather than flooding through the Papanui catchment was another major piece of work.

All told, 5.3 kilometres of stopbanks were breached and another 28 kilometres weakened. The Crown committed $203.5 million toward flood mitigation, including $70 million ring-fenced for Wairoa). The ‘deal’ obligates HBRC to add $44.15 million to that pot, which will need to be borrowed.

HBRC’s stated goal is to return the stopbanks to pre-cyclone standards. But is that sufficient? The urgency and full range of solutions (more than ‘higher stopbanks’) to the region’s flood protection system is clearly a matter of contention and concern – and significant budget impact – in the face of wide agreement that we will face more severe weather events going forward.

Breaches aside, HBRC faced criticism for its failed (washed away) river flow warning systems.

And then there’s silt, with around 3 million cubic metres originally to be cleared, with good progress made to date, but still some 1.2 million cubic metres to go, whose removal has been hampered by stop/go funding.

Three reviews into these issues are underway. HBRC itself commissioned the HB Independent Flood Review, looking at all the region’s flood protection schemes from Wairoa to Porangahau. That review (details here)is due in June. 

Two other reviews are focused more broadly on all aspects of emergency readiness and response. The region’s operational handling of the emergency by civil defence (HBCDEM) is being reviewed by a Panel led by former NZ Police Commissioner Mike Bush (details here), with its report going to HB mayors and HBRC chair on March 25. And more broadly still, the Government Inquiry into Response to the North Island Severe Weather Events is scheduled to report its findings publicly on 24 March (details here).

Chair Ormsby puts implementing the recommendations of these reviews at the top of her priority list for 2024. “The worst thing would be not to learn and change.” 

Further addressing flood damage, Ormsby puts planning for the so-called FOSAL locations next on her priority list. These are seven targeted locations with Categories 2A and 2C housing seriously affected by the cyclone, such as Whirinaki. In these instances, full business cases must be put together and communities engaged to establish the best paths forward in terms of flood protection solutions and future development.

Rounding out Ormsby’s ‘top 3’ list is conducting a comprehensive series of “efficiency reviews” across all HBRC activities. For context, she notes “the existing tax/rate share between central and local government – 92% to central, 8% to local is simply not fair, not equitable and not sustainable”. All her local government colleagues would agree!

Bottomline for HBRC: an even greater need to prioritise what the Council is doing, eliminate or defer lower priority activities, find cost efficiencies. 

All super-charged by the need to curb rate increases as much as possible “while ensuring the fiscal sustainability of the Council for what lies ahead”. To ‘smooth’ rate increases over the Covid/Gabrielle period, HBRC has borrowed to fund operating costs. HBRC had a zero rate rise in the Covid year and managed its funding for 2023/24 post-cyclone with a rate increase of ‘only’ 6%, topped by a $55 charge against all ratepayers – aiming to raise about $6 million against an estimated recovery cost of $92 million. 

The Council is now determined to eliminate borrowing for operations; future borrowing will be focused on long-term recovery, like HBRC’s $44 million co-funding commitment for flood protection. At the same time, we can expect the Council to be more conservative in its projections of income from investments like managed funds and its share of Napier Port.

Chair Ormsby indicated a “double digit” 2024/25 rate increase, with the actual to be tabled end of March. “We want to be equitable, we are mindful of outlier (i.e., special) situations), but those who can (pay), should.”

[Based on later information, BayBuzz has reported HBRC would be seeking $10 million on top of its current $41 million rate take, against an operating budget around $71 million. If funded entirely by rates, that would equate to a 25% rate increase.] 

As we discussed the Regional Council’s overall funding and recovery role, Ormsby made an important distinction about the future challenge faced by HBRC as distinct from our territorial authorities. For the latter, repairing ‘pumps, plants, pipes and roads’ involves certainties of design, cost, time to completion … add money, get a predictable, touchable outcome that everyone wants to happen.

But for HBRC, the fundamental underlying challenge of resilience is “keeping water and soil in the landscape as long as possible before they cause the disaster that they do.” She points to the massive financial and physical toll silt has taken. 

“And you can’t do that with pipes, plant and pumps.” It involves catchment management and behaviour change – better land use practices. “You’ve got to move people’s outlooks, people’s futures and hopes for a different environment and how we manage the land.” 

Regarding the ‘levers’ for making changes like that, Ormsby mentions goodwill of people, proper policy settings and regulatory measures, effective community catchment groups, financial incentives yet to be conceived, and targeted allocation of rates (“How is the rate pie split … who benefits, who exacerbates?”).

This makes a fledgling programme like HBRC’s ‘Land for Life’ of key importance, since it directly aims to change land use practices via strategically planned tree planting and adoption of regenerative farming practices, which are deemed to reduce both soil and water run-off. “Think about where all that silt came from,” says Ormsby. HBRC’s upcoming Three Year Plan will invest further in this “long term vision”.

We touched on the other side of the water coin, water storage. Ormsby points to progress with the managed aquifer recharge project in CHB, which involves using river water taken at high flows to inject (or infiltrate into) the underlying aquifer. Other moderate scale storage has been investigated for the Heretaunga Plains, but “Council is clear we are not progressing that without the agreement of our tangata whenua partners”. Frankly, some consider that a death knell. But Ormsby says work continues to engage local Māori and secure support. In any event, given funding constraints, I wouldn’t expect any feasibility funding in the coming Three Year Plan.

On climate, Ormsby is happy that the Climate Action Joint Committee (involving all the region’s councils), which she chairs, is “on a pathway”, but not happy that there isn’t more progress on a regional climate plan. She indicated that council CEOs recognise a need to elevate the priority of this work in their organisations. We shall see.

Lastly, like her mayoral pals, Ormsby is committed to a regional spatial plan (“we cannot again put people in the wrong places”). And she’s optimistic about the ‘Regional Deals’ being floated as a concept by the Government – basically bigger gobs of Crown funding committed for longer time frames, with more local discretion in how funded objectives are achieved on the ground. Any local government official’s wildest fantasy! Stay tuned on that one.

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1 Comment

  1. So next time how they inform us about imminent threat? So we can react accordingly, what changes are being made to empower victims form a future event?

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