Climate change work in Northland’s Ruawai has been stopped by Kaipara District Council, despite pleas from the community.
Kaipara District Council (KDC) has voted to “pause” the landmark community pilot for the rest of this financial year, even though it was booked into the council’s Long Term Plan 2021-2031 and Annual Plan for 2023-2024.
Started in 2021, the pilot covering 8000ha is creating a model for other for how local community adaptation to climate change might work.
Ruawai was chosen by Northland’s four councils as the region’s first pilot location, helping underpin their future efforts. It also provides information and modelling for councils around the rest of New Zealand.
The pilot is a major feature of Kaipara’s climate adaptation work.
On 29 November, Mayor Craig Jepson, deputy mayor Jonathan Larsen and councillors Mike Howard, Gordon Lambeth, Ron Manderson and Rachael Williams voted to “pause” the pilot.
Councillors Ash Nayaar, Pera Paniora, Mark Vincent and Eryn Wilson-Collins voted against it.
The council decision came after an often-polarised debate spanning more than an hour.
It was accompanied by clapping in response, from both sides of the debate in the public gallery, and pointed comments from “pause” opponents.
Former Kaipara mayor and Ruawai farmer Greg Gent (ONZM) said the pilot followed the wrong approach, focusing on detail, when everybody from Auckland north should work on a more global higher-level picture.
However, former Kaipara Deputy Mayor Anna Curnow said the pilot was needed.
Her position was supported by more than 800 people from Ruawai, New Zealand and overseas who signed her petition to save the council’s climate adaptation programme.
The signatories signed Curnow’s “Save Kaipara district’s climate adaptation programme”.
Curnow, a Ruawai resident, is co-chair of the pilot’s community panel.
She said the pilot was vital for the people of Ruawai and other settlements at risk from climate change impacts.
During the meeting, KDC, decided to go out to public consultation in the wake of the pilot “pause” as it works on its new 2024-2027 Long Term Plan budget, which must be in place before June.
The council’s lawyer warned the word ‘pause’ could be legally viewed by the courts as simply another word for stopping the pilot.
Stopping the pilot had been ranked as a significant matter by council staff, meaning public consultation was required.
Therefore the council’s decision, even for now, without public consultation brought legal risk, the lawyer said.
Jepson said public consultation would be taking place with the new Long Term Plan.
In a previous interview with Local Democracy Reporting Northland Jepson said he was not a climate change denier.
His opposition to the pilot included that the $70,000 remaining in its 2023-2024 budget would be better spent on the Raupo drainage scheme.
Jepson said after the meeting the council would now be looking at how the $70,000 pilot money transfer happened.
The $18 million scheme protects 8700ha of at or below sea level land across Ruawai and surrounds from the Kaipara Harbour with 70km of stopbanks and hundreds of kilometres of drains, 50-plus floodgates and a pump.
At the meeting, Jepson criticised the media, education system and Northland Regional Council over what he said was their inaccurate predictions and interpretations around climate change impacts.
The regional council has contributed money and technical support to the pilot.
Jepson said NRC figures used as the basis for much of Ruawai flooding risk and sea level rise figures, forecast results that were much worse than was going to eventuate.
However, NRC rivers manager Joseph Camuso said in response that reality had confirmed the accuracy of the regional council’s figures.
“We’ve had feedback from Ruawai catchment farmers following Cyclone Gabrielle who verified that the flood modelling was extremely accurate.
“We experienced similar results in the Awakino area. If anything, the weather events of 2023 have confirmed the accuracy of our modelling data,” Camuso said.
Green MP Hūhana Lyndon, from Tai Tokerau, said the council’s decision to effectively can the pilot was disappointing and she would be taking the matter to Wellington for further discussion.
The staff report, that was used to kick-start the debate, recommended the council continued with the pilot and its funding until June 2024, when the current financial year ended.
Mayor Jepson kicked off debate about the pilot’s future.
Not long after he started speaking, Wilson-Colins and Paniora moved to cement the staff recommendation as the foundation of pilot decision-making debate.
But Jepson would not accept the duo’s move, saying he had not finished his introduction. He then tabled a new alternate motion as the foundation for discussion.
Jepson’s motion worked from the premise that the Ruawai pilot and all related spending would pause. It ended up being the foundation for debate.
Vincent, who is KDC’s councillor observer on the pilot along with Paniora, sought to return debate to the staff recommendation being the debate’s theme. Councillors Ash Nayaar, Paniora and Wilson-Collins voted in support of this mid-debate push.
But Vincent’s efforts were voted down by the six who in the end voted to pause the pilot.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air