Hauraki farmer Robert Hicks steps down after fighting floods for 40 years

Robert Hicks has been helping keep water out of the notoriously flood-prone Hauraki Plains since 1978.
Robert Hicks has been helping keep water out of the notoriously flood-prone Hauraki Plains since 1978.

By Eric Frykberg of RNZ

A man who has been fighting floods for over four decades has finally handed control of the flood banks to someone else.

At 74, Robert Hicks is retiring, knowing he has left the low-lying Hauraki Plains far safer from inundation than when he found them.

His contribution to keeping the plains dry "cannot be overestimated", according to Waikato Regional Council.

Since 1978, Hicks has been continuously organising construction of stopbanks and other protective measures to keep water out of the notoriously flood-prone plains.

His desire to help started far before then, when he witnessed a catastrophic flood while being driven along a submerged road by his dad, as a five-year-old.

"The whole road and all of the land was under water, and water was up to the wheels of the car," he said.

"The water was flowing out of the Waihou River over the banks at Netherton.

"I have always thought since then that you have got to look after flood protection or we won't be able to farm here."

Hicks started out in 1978 as a member of the Western Drainage committee for Hauraki Plains County and finished as chair for the Waihou Piako Catchment Committee.

In a tribute, Waikato Regional Council said his work had saved thousands of hectares from flooding and the region was "forever in his debt".

The Waihou Piako flood protections scheme began in 1906, but was hugely improved during Hicks' time.

It now has 170km of stopbanks, 59 floodgates and 32 pump stations, to help protect a region that is below sea level in some places.

Hicks was himself first a dairy farmer, then a beef farmer on the plains, and he knows flood protection measures there had to work.

One of his early contributions was getting four pumping stations built in a peat bog below sea level.

Another was building flood banks after a sea incursion that hit Kaiaua, Miranda, Waitakaruru and Ngātea on the western and southern shores of the Firth of Thames.

"It's a lot safer now than when I started," he said.

"The Waihou scheme is the most expensive and comprehensive flood scheme in New Zealand.

"It is the dearest to build and the dearest to maintain, but the reality is we manage it every day, hour, every week of the year.

"So that anything that happens will not be a surprise - if sea levels rise we will just raise the levels of the banks."

Hicks said he would miss being involved in flood protection, but it was time to pass the baton on to younger people.

Not that he will slow down much, he will continue buying cattle around the country and finishing them for sale on his 32-hectare semi-retirement farm.