A Hokio farmer who was prosecuted for opening up a drainage trench without resource consent to ease unprecedented flooding has spoken out to explain his actions.
Fyfe Williamson said he never wanted to offend anybody by carrying out earthworks to open up what he said was an existing channel in an attempt to help ease the pressure of flooding at Lake Rakau Hamama in 2017.
The area Williamson was trying to drain receives filtered stormwater, which it can usually withstand, however extreme rainfall that year boosted stormwater flows and left the privately-owned lake that borders his land much higher than usual with a large area of farmland underwater.
"It came in so fast, it was going up three quarters of an inch a day," he said.
"I tried to get the water to leave through the ground first, but the sand was consolidated and nothing was leaving. I was in panic mode."
He opened up the channel, but part of it crossed onto neighbouring land. Before he could finish it, he said he received an abatement notice and was told the regional council had been informed, so he left the channel plugged up with a large sand bund and "stayed away," he said.
He said he did not expect the water to keep rising but it did, and before further action was taken to investigate the issue, the sand bund blew out, causing the lake's levels to drop rapidly, the channel to become carved more deeply by the water and sand to silt up an area of alluvial plain.
Williamson was prosecuted by Horizons Regional Council, pleading guilty to not seeking proper resource consent and receiving a conviction, although Judge Brian Dwyer said at the time he was sympathetic to Williamson's concerns over higher than usual lake levels and flooding across his land.
Willliamson said this week that in 2017, after the lake had drained down the channel it reached and remained at a level close to its usual average without the pressure of unprecedented rainfall.
He said he had carried out work on part of the land that crossed over onto his neighbour's property, a block of iwi land owned by the Hokio A Trust, because he had done some fencing work on it before and assumed he was just doing the sensible thing to help relieve the water, believing others would see it that way too.
"I was naive," he said.
"I expected we'd have a waterway here and we'd control the erosion at the other end. This was an old waterway. I didn't go into it to offend anybody and I never expected it to blow out."
Today, the channel Williamson opened up remains in place and drains any overflow from the lake through into an area he says is rehydrated wetland.
The place, named Okotore, is noted in early maps of the area and a 1948 Department of Internal Affairs book on Horowhenua as having been a wetland swallowed by sand drift and general "desecration".
Williamson now believes the area is back to a better state than it had been for many years.
His views are backed by land owner and former trustee Peter Huria, who supplied a letter to Williamson stating that "the 2017 flood has not proven to have damaged the whenua [land] at all and if anything has improved the environment".
Huria wrote that since the overflow flood in 2017, the overall water table had lifted in Okotore to provide "a more sustainable environment for the native species of grasses, insects and native birds and fish life".
Despite this, Williamson said he wanted to take ownership of the fact he had not sought proper resource consent, but that the process of prosecution, which he had not expected, had "cost everybody."
His own family had been on the receiving end of judgement in the local community and they, as well as regional ratepayers, were out of pocket due to high legal fees, he said.
"We are having to absorb the cost but it's hard to project ourselves forward," he said.
Williamson said there were five court appearances in total.
He had not spoken out initially, he said, so as not to impede the court process, which he fully respected.
He last appeared in the Levin District Court in May this year for sentencing, where he faced a possible fine of $80,000. He was sentenced to 80 hours community service.
"It was a terribly traumatic time. Still now we are suffering the humility of being taken to court," he said.
However, Horizons Regional Council maintains Williamson's actions caused environmental issues that remain today.
Dr Nic Peet, Group Manager Strategy and Regulation, said Lake Rakau Hamama is a rare and threatened habitat which was illegally drained causing significant environment effects.
"Horizons restored the lake level as far as possible to manage these effects," he said.
"There remain downstream consequences of the illegal earthworks which Horizons is working through with affected landowners."
He did not specify what those consequences were.