Flooding in South Dunedin is one of the biggest issues facing the city over the next two decades, according to Mayor Cull (ODT 13 June 2015).
The devastation caused by 175mm rain falling in 24 hours on 3rd June 2015 has the Mayor talking of the real possibility of abandoning South Dunedin to the elements. Our drainage systems just could not cope with this rain event.
Flooding is not new in South Dunedin. It is, as the Mayor observes, built on a drained swamp and history records a number of significant floods since European settlement. Ten years ago residents were kayaking around South Dunedin Streets; fifty years before that they were canoeing the same streets. Thirty something years before that was another great flood of South Dunedin. But our civic leaders previously had never talked about abandoning ship (or suburb). They tidied up the mess and thought about what drainage improvements could be implemented. So why does this event now have a Mayor talking about “the end game”?
Because this time it comes from a firm Mayoral belief that a second flooding event in a ten-year period confirms that dramatic and long-term climate change is now alive and well and coming to a street near you. The Mayor tells us that no renewal of the drains will turn the floodwaters back next time. For it is not only the rains and the encroaching ocean that are the threats, but also the rising water table which, at places, is only centimetres below the surface.
“The writing is on the wall that this is going to happen” states Dr David McKay of the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability about the impact of climate change; he is a supporter of the ‘managed retreat’ option with no houses left in South Dunedin. The Mayor and his intimate advisors are obviously right on top of the climate change issue. More than most of us they have studied the engineering reports on the impact of the waves on the sea wall at the Esplanade, the threatened breach of the sand dunes between St Clair and St Kilda and they have studied forecasted climate change impact reports.
Mayor Cull is also quoted (ODT 13 June 2015) as saying that ‘managed retreat might be a controversial concept and one sure to divide the community, but it was time to start talking about it.’ He also states that he would support it if we looked at the alternatives and retreat was clearly the most efficient and cost-effective.’
We also learn that Council has already deferred, indefinitely, major engineering projects to protect our sea wall and sand dunes and so we can assume that the Council do not consider these to be ‘efficient and cost-effective’. And now we also learn that building regulations are already in place for South Dunedin requiring new buildings to have higher floor levels and for new homes to be relocatable. There is also a proposal, that the Mayor is considering, to build an artificial island on the marshland and / or to create a lake in Tainui to act as a natural sump.
So when Mayor Cull says we need to start talking about a managed retreat, leaving unspecified parts of South Dunedin to become a swampy nature reserve and allowing the sea to redefine the beachfront, it really sounds very much as though his end-game plan is actually already in play. And, if we accept this in the next election, it will challenge civic leadership and management skills to an unprecedented level.
But if all that is true and if we will, over the next couple of decades, have no certainty about what parts of South Dunedin will still be above water or returned to a sea-bed or marshland, then what on earth is the Mayor doing spending millions of dollars building cycleways all through existing streets of South Dunedin? How do cycleways become a number 1 priority for investment in South Dunedin? The cycleway seems to meander right through the lowest lying parts of South Dunedin which will be most under threat from the encroaching sea and rising water table.
In an ODT article last week Mayor Cull said the cycleways were a key part of the Council’s vision to attract new residents. Why would he try to attract new residents to these suburbs with such an uncertain future? And while he sees investing in new cycleways in South Dunedin as priority #1 for the Council, Mayor Cull says it is this flooding threat that raises questions about the wisdom of investing in a new library and other expensive infrastructure for South Dunedin. So how does that logic work?
But if Mayor Cull and his Greater Dunedin Council are ready to abandon parts of South Dunedin because from marsh it came and to marsh it will return, then what are they thinking about Logan Park, which last century was actually Lake Logan, or the Exchange which is where the first Scottish settlers stepped ashore. Climate change will not differentiate between North, South and Central Dunedin when it comes to raising the water table and allowing the sea to reclaim its borrowed domain.
There must have been several Council meetings over recent years where the item “end-game options for South Dunedin” was on the agenda within a reasonably close time-frame of the agenda item “South Dunedin cycleway project”. Surely someone in Council saw the anomaly and asked the question? Oh yes, I remember now, Cr Vandervis has done so regularly and has found himself censured, and even ejected from a meeting, by the Mayor for challenging the cycleway sacred cow.
That is why we should never have Greens in positions of government. They spend all their time squawking like hens on heat about the sky falling in, but when it comes to rational solutions we are probably better off asking the hens. At least they wouldn’t suggest underwater cycleways as a strategy for attracting new residents to live in an uninhabitable marshland.
Emperor Nero played his fiddle, Mayor Cull rides his bike.