Flood-prone Franz Josef and nearby farms remain at the mercy of the West Coast’s biblical rainfall as the Government dithers on protection measures.
In South Westland, work has begun on extending the giant stopbanks that protect the tourist town of Franz Josef and State Highway 6 from the wild Waiho River.
It’s nearly two years since the Government trumpeted a grant of $24 million for improved flood defences following the spectacular March 2019 event that washed away the road bridge and stranded hundreds of tourists for days.
But on the south bank opposite Franz Josef township, farmers and homeowners are still waiting to hear if they’re to be included or forgotten.
And for one farming family that means watching as the glacier-fed river tears away chunks of their land with every major downpour.
Down the drain
Neil and Kath Frendrup own one of the Coast’s most productive dairy farms: milking 900 cows on 600ha on the Waiho flats.
But in the 2019 flood, they lost about 12 percent of their farm when the Milton stopbank collapsed and the Waiho burst through, strewing rocks and gravel over the pasture and wiping out fences and waterlines.
The damage bill came to $400,000 and the Frendrups borrowed about half of that to clean up what they could and keep farming.
Déjà vu all over again
They’d just repaid the bank when the Waiho turned feral again last December after a deluge in the hills.
This time, the river came around the end of the stopbank and carved a new channel through their paddocks.
“We were lucky there was a bloke down the road at the time with a 1000-horsepower bulldozer and we got him to push loads of gravel up to make a temporary barrier.It cost us about $24,000 this time.”
But the paddocks bordering the river are still a wasteland, covered in rocks and flood debris, with the tops of water troughs and fence posts poking forlornly out of the rubble.
The cost of the clean-up, new fencing and homemade flood defences has meant less money to spend on lime, fertiliser and other farm maintenance.
And with the loss of the river paddocks, the Frendrups’ production has dropped from an average of 330kg to 260kg of milk solids a cow a year.
And the couple live in dread of the next downpour.
“I take sleeping pills at night – I have to,” Kath Frendrup says. “We’re farming in limbo. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The $24 million originally announced for Franz Josef flood protection included extensions to the stopbanks that protect south-bank farms, including parts of the Frendrup’s spread.
The project was pitched by West Coast Regional Council as “shovel-ready” and gained approval under the Labour-New Zealand First coalition government.
But after Labour’s landslide victory in 2020, the noises coming out of Wellington changed.
Franz Josef needs a long-term plan to deal with climate change and an array of natural hazards, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment officials said.
The bed of the Waiho River has been rising by 18cm a year as the Franz Josef glacier retreats, freeing millions of tonnes of gravel and rock to tumble downstream and create havoc.
It’s now 8m higher than in the 1950s and is well above the level of the town.
Franz Josef is perched right on the Alpine Fault, which is overdue for its big 300-yearly – on average – shake-up.
This unique suite of hazards has generated talk over the years, but no written plans, says local MP and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, about gradually moving the town north out of harm’s way.
In one scenario, the highway could be rerouted, the Waiho allowed to fan out over its natural flood plain and affected landowners bought out.
Last April, the Government confirmed a scaled-down $9.3 million for work on stopbanks to defend life and limb in Franz Josef as well as State Highway 6 and the all-important road bridge.
Co-funding of $3 million will come from local ratepayers and the work would buy the town about 20 years to migrate north.
But spending another $9 million on the threatened south bank, with its farms and lifestyle properties, needed further thought, officials concluded.
As far as Westland Mayor Bruce Smith is concerned, the thinking has gone on for long enough.
“The Government can’t keep dangling our landowners on a string. It needs to either buy them out or stump up the dollars it agreed to in July 2019.
“There are four major farms down there including the Frendrups and they’re producing $6 million a year for our dairy factory. People have borrowed money on the promise that the flood walls would be extended and now they’ve been let down.”
There is also the matter of the Franz Josef airstrip to consider, Smith says.
“It’s the only one in the area for fixed-wing aircraft and we saw how important it was in the 2019 flood for getting people out. We need to be protecting these assets.”
O’Connor said last December that Waiho flats landowners could expect a clearer picture of their future in the new year.
Three months on the Frendrups are still waiting.
“We got excited when the council announced the tenders for the work last week,” says Neil Frendrup. “But when we read on, it’s only for the north bank of the river and the bit of the south bank that protects the highway. Nothing for us.”
The Franz Josef farmer, now in his late 70s, says a 200m extension of the Milton stopbank would be enough to protect theirs and others’ farms.
“I don’t know what it would cost but it’s got to be cheaper than the $80 million or so it would cost to buy everyone out. I just wish they would honestly let us know what’s going on.”
A Cabinet paper on options for Franz Josef and the Waiho flats flood protection schemes is due shortly, O’Connor says.
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund