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Published: 2011-02-09 00:00:00

Two consecutive weekends of wild weather in the Waikato late last month underlined the increased risks the region faces from river flooding, Environment Waikato’s river and catchment services committee heard yesterday.

“The reality is that as a region we need to be better prepared to cope with river flooding and to minimise the risks we face,” committee chairman Stuart Kneebone said after a briefing to the meeting. The Queensland and Victoria floods had also highlighted the importance of planning for a large scale disaster and working closely with various agencies to reduce the effects.

“River flooding is the most frequent natural hazard we face and we can’t afford to be complacent about it. We need a closely coordinated, multi-faceted approach to managing and reducing this risk.”

Regional hazards and emergency management programme manager Adam Munro told the committee there were 20 major rivers and about 1400 streams in the wider Waikato. Just under a tenth of the region was in known flood hazard areas. “Hotspots” included the Coromandel, the Waihou and Piako river catchments, parts of Hamilton and surrounding areas, the lower Waikato River, parts of the Waipa River catchment, the upper Waikato River, Lake Taupo and the west coast around Awakino, Marokopa and Raglan.

Mr Munro said there had been extensive urban and rural development of flood prone areas, which contained about $15 billion of building and developments. The extensive flood protection infrastructure in the region would cost about $500 million to replace.

Climate change was forecast to increase extreme rainfall events and raise sea levels. While the Waikato had been able to handle extreme weather events in recent years Mr Munro said he was concerned about the region’s ability to handle a really big river flooding event. Also, recent work on river flood trends had shown a rapid increase in development proposals within flood hazard areas over the past five years.

“River flood hazards are subject to the impacts of more frequent and severe weather systems, population growth, pressure for development in areas prone to flood hazards and significant land use changes in the upper catchments of the Waikato River system,” Mr Munro said.

The current review of the Waikato Regional Policy Statement was examining what more could be done to manage and mitigate river flooding risk, including improving policy and planning, and building public awareness of the risks, he added. It was important for local communities and property owners to ensure they were aware of the risks from flooding in their locality.

Cr Kneebone said EW’s co-ordinated approach to river flood management had already significantly reduced the impact of flooding on Waikato communities.

“In co-operation with agencies like Civil Defence and local councils, we will be looking closely at what more we can do to manage the situation in the face of factors such as climate change and development pressures.

“It’s important that we get this right when it comes to protecting lives and property from the ravages of river flooding,” Cr Kneebone said.

“Communities can potentially become complacent when we go for long periods without significant events but it’s important for us all to keep our eye on the ball when it comes to flooding.”