Plans were under way at Auckland Council to cut spending on stormwater repairs and maintenance shortly before the catastrophic January 27 floods, official papers show.
What’s more, it was the second year in a row that the council’s Healthy Waters division had come up with cuts to stormwater maintenance and repairs as part of budget savings.
Claims of blocked drains and reduced cleaning of stormwater pipes were blamed for making the flooding worse during the one-two punch of the Auckland Anniversary weekend and Cyclone Gabrielle storm events.
Following the January floods, Onehunga resident Mary Tixier said 20 years of complaining to the council about drainage issues every time it rains had resulted in no action, leaving a neighbour to unclog the public drains.
Tixier said today she is at the point of “just giving up”, saying whenever it pours down with rain, a waterfall flows down on her property from a stormwater drain.
When asked about the stormwater cuts, Tixier said: “They are not looking at the larger, long-term picture.”
Papers obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act show that in March last year, officers found $2 million of unspent money in Healthy Waters’ repairs and maintenance budget and put it forward as a “one-off” towards a $90m savings target in then-mayor Phil Goff’s 10-year “recovery budget”.
At the time, Healthy Waters was spending about $25m a year on repairs and maintenance.
Not long after Wayne Brown was elected mayor of Auckland in October last year, the papers show Healthy Waters boss Craig McIlroy offered a $2m permanent reduction in the repairs and maintenance budget with a one-off extra $1m capital for minor works to partially minimise maintenance costs.
Officers warned of “key risks” from cutting the repairs and maintenance programme, saying it was already under strain from inflation, the high number of vested stormwater assets from developers and “escalating climate change trends in extreme flooding events”.
The $2m reduction in the repairs and maintenance budget - part of a $30m cut to running costs in Brown’s first budget - was withdrawn soon after January’s floods.
In response to the floods, the council created a $20m storm response fund that includes $7m for ongoing maintenance, doubling street sump cleaning frequency, identifying more flooding hotspots, and inspections and compliance in floodplains, streams, culverts and overland flow paths on public and private land.
Lyall Carter, spokesman for West Auckland is Flooding, was not surprised at the spending cuts, saying “there has been a real reduction in the maintenance of the streams and rivers around West Auckland, which are the stormwater lifeblood for a lot of communities”.
He said there is a real immediacy to address the stormwater arteries in West Auckland, not only for people whose homes were flooded in January, but people who had near-misses and could be victims next time a flood occurs.
Parnell Business Association general manager Cheryl Adamson, writing in the Herald last month, described the schedule for clearing catch pits and drains once a year along The Strand as “hopelessly inadequate”.
Today, Adamson said after six months of nagging, Healthy Waters had cleaned up the silt in the pipes and the pipes have coped with the last rains, whereas before January’s floods, several retailers were flooded after heavy rain last year.
“That would substantiate … the reduction in budget,” she said.
Adamson said she did not know what the $20m boost to the stormwater budget this year would buy, saying she had no idea after asking.
“What is the maintenance schedule going to be from now? I cannot get a clear answer,” she said.
Bernard Orsman is an Auckland-based reporter who has been covering local government and transport since 1998. He joined the Herald in 1990 and worked in the Parliamentary press gallery for six years.