Government, council exploring options to move parts of Westport away from flood-prone locations

Westport may be our first town to fall victim to climate change.

Newshub has obtained documents that show the council and Government are exploring options to move parts of the town away from their flood-prone locations.

With sea levels rising twice as fast as was expected in some parts of the country, there's a new urgency to protect coastal properties.

After being flooded twice in seven months Westport or Kawatiri is now a case study for the rest of the country.

Jammed into the piers of the Buller River bridge, tree trunks are a reminder that this is what happens when the Buller floods.

It's one of just two bridges in and out of the town.

"When they close where does that leave Westport?" Buller District Mayor Jamie Cleine asked.

Cutting off thousands of residents who live in flood-prone areas. Now work is underway to identify land to move parts of Westport.

"It is a potential situation that Westport may find themselves in," Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said.

"We need to start having some good conversations around things like the ability to move to higher ground," added Cleine.

Documents reveal local council has long-term plans to relocate housing to higher ground either for new housing and/or managed retreat. Government officials are also exploring options to speed up subdivision for housing in areas less prone to natural hazards, including the availability of publicly owned land.

A steering group has been tasked with developing options for long-term flood protection to take Government.

But even after the February floods this year Minister Mahuta wrote to Council asking them to prove what makes Buller an urgent and compelling case for funding.

"Well it doesn't get more urgent than two floods in a year," Cleine said.

Not just any floods but two one-in-100-year events washing people out of their homes twice in just seven months.

The Minister still wants to see proof and won't guarantee any Crown funding.

"I'm not in a position to give a pre-commitment before I know exactly what those costs look like," Mahuta said.

Almost every time it floods here in Westport the same residential streets like Peel Street are inundated by water. Co-investment proposals with Government to help stop that are due back to Cabinet by July. Exactly one year on since the region's worst flood in decades.

Any proposal is likely to come with a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars. The big-ticket item is a stopbank or floodwall for the entire town.

"You can't build it too high, it's going to cost too much and probably people don't want that anyway. They probably don't want to feel like they're surrounded by the Great Wall of Westport," said Buller Flood Recovery Steering Group chair Richard Kempthorne.

The stormwater system would likely need replacing too but Buller can't afford it.

"Buller District is the most socio-economically deprived region or district in the South Island," Kempthorne said.

"There's clearly a need here," Cleine added.

To protect this community from going underwater again when the next big storm arrives.