Damien O'Connor

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O’Connor says those investing in flood prone areas like the Waiho Flat in South Westland need to think carefully, but that has not gone down well with the area’s under-threat farmers.
“The long-term solutions are not simple and people have to be wary when investing in these areas,” he said.
Mr O’Connor said while he had not recently touched base with the Waiho Flat farmers, vulnerable to flooding from the Waiho (Waiau) River at Franz Josef Glacier, he had hoped a clear solution would have emerged by now.
“I can understand the insecurity that people are feeling,” he said.
The Government put up a $24 million package for a Waiho flood scheme after the 2019 flood which swept away the State highway 6 bridge and swept through the downstream farming settlement of Waiho Flat.
The funding was for a lower Waiho scheme addressing flood protection on both sides of the river.
Since then the West Coast Regional Council has been authorised to undertake a $12m scheme for the north bank of the Waiho, while the Government mulls options for the south side — including the possibility recommended by scientists of letting the existing stopbanks go so the aggrading river can naturally fan out.
Decades-long Waiho Flat farmers spoken to were appalled by Mr O’Connor’s comments.
Richard Molloy said it was “too late” for the MP to say people should not be investing in the area.
“Gratuitous is a very polite way of describing that,” Mr Molloy said. “The investment was done 100 years ago.”
Waiho Rating District chairman Peter Dennehy said the comments were no surprise.
“He just sits on the fence about everything. We’ve had him down there with a meeting and he said ‘it’ll just set a precedent’. We can understand that.”
But in the meantime Waiho Flat farmers were “in the dark” about their future and had to try to protect their livelihoods in a “ridiculous situation,” Mr Dennehy said.
The latest ‘fresh’ down the Waiho last week had again forced some landowners to commission their own protection work to stop the river eating away at their land.
“He’s (Damien O’Connor) still keeping us in the dark, it’s gone on for far too long. We’re in a hell of a state down here,” Mr Dennehy said.
Farmers had little choice other than to do rudimentary protection work that could have been done more robustly under the bigger scheme that was no longer authorised under the original Government plans.
“The thing that frustrates is that it wouldn’t cost a lot of money to fix it. It’s not a big deal but they’re making it a big deal. We’re just not allowed to do anything.
“Currently, because we all don’t know what’s going on we’re trying to protect the assets we’ve got.”
Mr O’Connor said the Government was “acutely aware” of the dilemma faced at Waiho Flat, but addressing the issue was “part of the wider consideration” for other areas, including Westport.
“There’s still a lot of work going on … a lot of officials are mindful of the complex situation, the need to keep the road.”
When pressed, Mr O’Connor acknowledged the Waiho Flat question represented more than just the future of State highway 6, on the edge of the main farming area.
“There’s not clear conclusions on that … we just have to be mindful that this Waiho Flat issue along with many other areas in New Zealand are in a similar change.
“The long-term solutions are not simple and people have to be wary when investing in these areas.”
He agreed that the expectation of Waiho Flat landowners that their future would be addressed by now had fallen short.
“I had hoped for that as well … obviously wanting the best outcome we can for both the town of Franz Josef and people on the south side (Waiho Flat). I will continue to push for the best outcome as quickly as we can.”
Mr Dennehy said extending the existing stopbank further down would not be too costly.
The plight of Waiho Flat in the meantime reflected the lack of political will to even express support for farmers in the region.
“It’s quite doable. It’s just typical of everything they’re doing on the Coast — they’re just leaving it.”