My Column - Moving forward together

21 May 2020

Rebooting our tourism industry

Doing all we can to bolster our economy in a post-COVID-19 world is now a priority. We are already working on a number of infrastructure proposals we hope the Government will fund to help boost the construction industry. Another key sector in the Far North is tourism. Visitors have long been attracted to our forgiving climate, cultural icons and historic places, and an incredibly varied marine environment. Providing for those visitors has become an increasingly significant part of the district's income.

In recent years, foreign visitors have become an important part of the tourism mix and many businesses are reliant on the income they generate. That trade came to an abrupt halt in March when the nation closed its borders. With no way of knowing when foreign tourists will return, many of our tourism businesses are now facing a very uncertain future.

But there is some good news. The Government last week announced a $400 million Tourism Recovery Fund in the budget and has also extended the wage subsidy to help businesses get through the COVID-19 economic downturn. Air New Zealand has resumed flights to Northland. While at a significantly reduced level, the number of flights will increase as restrictions are relaxed and demand climbs.

And demand will increase. According to a survey released last week by Horizon Research, 34 per cent of New Zealand adults, or around 1,229,600 million people, intend to take a domestic holiday in the next 12 months. Of those, over 378,000 say they will holiday in the Bay of Islands. That is great news for tourism operators, both large and small, and one of our most iconic attractions, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, has already re-opened its tours and performances.

It is our many smaller and medium sized tourism operators that face the most immediate challenge after losing a significant portion of their annual income during the virus lockdown. I am working with industry leaders and business associations on a campaign to reboot that industry as quickly as we can. We're about to launch a dedicated Facebook page called Far North Escapes that will link accommodation to restaurants and to activity providers so we can tap into the local knowledge that makes visiting us extra special. The goal is to persuade Kiwis to 'see their own backyard' starting Queen's Birthday weekend. The promotion will be carried on social media and support the district's 'shop local' campaign. Discussions around developing a website linking all our towns to support this campaign and continue collaboration has been one positive outcome of COVID-19.

Encouraging visitors to our district does not mean neglecting important safety measures to prevent a resurgence of the virus. Ensuring protocols are in place is part of discussions with local service providers. We are lucky up here, we have the wide-open spaces and uncrowded beaches that make physical distancing relatively easy. Let's welcome Kiwis to our place, and help our businesses get through the winter.


14 May 2020

Turning a corner on COVID-19

We, all of us, have achieved a significant milestone. Today we move from COVID-19 Alert Level 3 restrictions down to Level 2. Shops cafes, restaurants, cinemas and other public spaces can now reopen. Schools will follow suit from next Monday. As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said when making the announcement on Monday, this is a triumph and one we have achieved ahead of most other nations.

We have accomplished this through the efforts you and other Kiwis have made. Yes, we have advantages as an island nation (our borders are easy to control), but the main reason we have succeeded in avoiding much higher infection rates is due to New Zealanders working together. As a nation, we have listened to medical experts and collectively applied their advice. Many of you have taken it as a personal challenge to beat this pandemic.

I have witnessed the way communities have joined forces despite the physical difficulties in doing that. You have ensured our most vulnerable are looked after and no one is forgotten. I am particularly proud of the way the Far North has stepped up to distribute care packs to those in our remotest communities. It’s hard not to compare these efforts to military manoeuvres: the way individuals and groups have marshalled their resources, especially around marae, was like witnessing a well-drilled army swing into action.

The Prime Minister was not shy of using military metaphors on Monday, reminding us that we may have won a few battles, but have not won the war. As we all look forward to a weekend with far greater freedom, it is crucial to remember that the coronavirus still poses a significant risk to our health. Medical experts agree the disease is now contained, but we are not yet out of danger – the risk of community transmission remains very real.

Under Level 2, we must continue to observe physical distancing, and be ready to provide personal details if required for contact tracing. Providing these details to business owners or at public venues is now the most effective weapon we have to combat new outbreaks of the virus should they occur.

Like other businesses, the Council will ask for contact details as our we reopen our service centres, libraries and i-SITES. We are not returning to 'business as usual' quite yet - our frontline facilities will have limited opening hours, reduced services and strict safety protocols in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Under Level 2 we cannot have gatherings of more than 10 people, so Council, Community Board and committee meetings will continue to be conducted online for the time being. Recordings of these will be posted on our website so you can remain informed of the decisions we are making.

I want to thank all Far North residents for helping to us to get to this point. There is more work to do, but we have turned a corner.


7 May 2020

Restarting our economy

As we near the end of our seventh week living under pandemic restrictions, we are beginning to get a better sense of what our post-pandemic world might look like. I use the term 'sense' because no one can say with any certainty what long-term impacts this event will have on the way we live.

Without doubt our economy will take a hit with key industries brought to a sudden standstill and many of our residents facing financial hardship. Our economy is beginning to restart. For example, of the 426 food outlets we have registered, 106 food are now operating under Level 3 restrictions. Understandably, many ratepayers are looking at how to cut their outgoings and have asked that we look at reducing rates.

Councillors are very aware that rates are a significant cost, particularly to residents on fixed incomes. That is why we adopted rates relief measures at our 9 April meeting. This interim measure allows for rate payments to be deferred for up to six months and was something your council could apply immediately to assist.

Right across the country there have been calls for councils to provide further relief by cutting rates. Last week, your councillors met to discuss the path forward. Cutting rates also means cutting Council spending and we agreed that this would make the district's recovery slower and much more painful.

The Far North District Council is a significant service provider. That means we directly and indirectly employ hundreds of people across the district so we can provide the many services you receive. One of our most significant annual expenditures is on roading. This financial year we plan to spend close to $30 million on new roading and footpaths. Tightening our belt here would inevitably mean contractors and our own staff would lose their jobs. That would not improve our economy or our recovery.

Last month, we submitted 17 'shovel-ready' infrastructure projects to a taskforce set up by the Government to seek out projects that will stimulate the economy and reduce impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The projects we submitted include new water supplies for Kaikohe and Kaitaia, upgrades to wastewater facilities, flood protection, roading, and plans to boost walking and cycling options. I am very confident a number will get the green light and once they do, we need to ensure we have capacity to do that.

We are exploring other ways we can reduce costs and are working through what would be required alongside Local Government New Zealand and the Crown. We will keep you posted on what we decide.


17 April 2020

Life during lockdown

Like you, I have been locked down at home since the Level 4 pandemic restrictions were announced just over three weeks ago. Despite being confined to my bubble, life at Waipapakauri has been hugely busy dealing with two unprecedented crises facing our district. Together, these events are posing significant challenges for Far North residents, particularly our farmers.

Before the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown, our region was already dealing with the most serious drought seen for decades. Five of our water supplies have been subject to stringent Level 4 water restrictions for most of the summer and restrictions remain in place on all Council water supplies. While the situation has eased, temporary emergency water tanks remain on site at Kaikohe, Kaitaia and Rawene - our most seriously affected towns.

To help get our district through both the lockdown and the water crisis, I have been in regular contact with our iwi leaders through conference calls every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. These leaders have done an outstanding job liaising with their communities to ensure all residents receive the support they require.

There have also been weekly conference calls with chairs of our district's Business Associations to get a thorough understanding of the impact the lockdown is having on their members. I am helping them to access information they need to get through the pandemic. At the same time, we have been planning promotions to assist businesses get re-established once Level 4 restrictions are relaxed.

Our rural sector has been particularly hard-hit by recent events. I have been working closely with representatives of the Rural Support Group to ensure the effects of the drought on our farming community is discussed and recorded, and that this information is passed to all those helping this sector negotiate the drought and the lockdown.

I have been taking part in regular conference calls and exchanges with local government colleagues across Northland. This includes Civil Defence and other officials working to ensure essential services delivered to our communities, such as water, sewerage and roading, continue uninterrupted during the lockdown.

These calls provide me with an excellent overview on the lockdown and drought impacts. I am sharing that with Ministers, government officials, Local Government New Zealand and other key decisionmakers. I assure you, the information you are giving me is being listened to in Wellington and is helping Cabinet make key decisions about the Government’s response.

Many residents and community groups have also contacted me directly seeking updates and advice. I have done my best to provide answers or find the information you need. I have also been in touch with several individuals who have needed support or reassurance. Sometimes, simply talking issues through can make a world of difference.

Working from home and communicating with leaders and community members through conference and video calls has required some adjustment. Keeping our council functioning at both a governance and operational level remotely like this has also required adaptation.


26 March 2020

United against COVID-19

Today we begin a four-week national lock down to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Except for those working in an essential service, we must all stay home and stop physical interactions with people outside our households. Schools are closed. Non-essential workplaces are closed. Travel is restricted.

This has never happened before in New Zealand, but I believe it is the right thing to do. We need to do all we can to prevent COVID-19 spreading. If we don’t, tens of thousands of ordinary New Zealanders - our neighbours, our workmates, our whanau - will very likely die. We only need look to China, Italy, Spain, Iran and other countries to see what can happen if we do not act. That’s why our government is taking the initiative to prevent the spread of this virus. Remember, we are doing this to keep your family and friends healthy and safe, so I urge everyone to stay calm and to make coordinated decisions with friends and family, so your self-isolation is sustainable.

Being isolated does not mean cutting yourself off completely, we also need to look out for each other. Please check in with family and friends. Make sure they have all they need, including someone to talk to. Check on your neighbours by phone, especially if they are over the age of 70, have health issues or live alone. Keep an eye out for their welfare, but remember to keep a 2-metre distance if you visit them for the sake of their health as well as your own.

It is easy to feel like we are under siege. We are not. There is no need to panic buy. You can still go outside with your children. You can take the dog for a walk and you can go to the supermarket or pharmacy. The goal is to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, so keep your distance from anyone you are not normally in self-isolation with.

Your Council has a vital role to play during this crisis. We will ensure essential services continue to operate. These include water, wastewater, stormwater, drought management, animal management, housing for the elderly, cemeteries, public toilets, the Hokianga Ferry and road maintenance, where it involves public safety. Other services will continue, but in a different form. Public amenities, such as libraries, public swimming pools, i-SITE information centres, and Council service centres will be closed. However, you can still contact us by emailing ask.us@fndc.govt.nz or phoning 0800 920 029. Most of our staff will be working from home during the four-week lock down, so there will be someone to deal with urgent enquiries. If you can, please defer non-urgent calls until the COVID-19 alert level is reduced by the government.

The next four weeks will be new territory for all of us. Council staff are working hard to ensure essential services continue with minimum interruption. We ask for your patience and understanding as we establish service continuity. Your elected representatives, alongside senior managers, are also working on options to reduce the impact this unprecedented event will have on our economy and our ratepayers. We will take full advantage of Government assistance to help us through.

Remember, we are all in this together and the best way forward is to be united against COVID-19. Stay safe, be sensible and please be kind to each other.


19 March 2020

Meeting the challenges ahead

Over the weekend our government ramped up the nation's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly everyone entering the country is now asked to self-isolate for 14 days. While the number of confirmed virus cases in New Zealand is still low, we only need to look at how it has progressed elsewhere in the world to understand that decisive action is vital if we want to slow the spread of Covid-19.

The Council is closely monitoring the situation. We are following advice from health experts and doing all we can to prepare. Council staff will stay at home if they feel unwell and we will help them to work from home if they need to self-isolate. At this stage, our services will continue as normal.

The pandemic is already having a dramatic effect on our economy, particularly our tourism industry. An immediate impact for the Far North will be the ban of cruise ships from all New Zealand ports until June 30. About 27 ships carrying more than 50,000 passengers were due in the Bay of Islands during this period. Over the weekend I spoke to schools, rest homes and businesses, and I know many of you are anxious about how the pandemic will impact our district. Rest assured, we will be talking with the government about how we can collectively minimise possible impacts.

As I write this, weather forecasters are predicting Cyclone Gretel will pass to the east of the country and have only limited impact on the Far North. While we will see some showers, this will be well short of the sustained rain we hoped for. Our message therefore to all residents is to please keep conserving water by turning taps off, washing full loads, flushing less often, and taking shorter showers.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a further $3 million in relief measures for drought-hit Northland during a visit to Kaitaia. While here, she toured the pipeline we have built at Bonnetts Rd to take water from a bore on farmland owned by Te Hiku iwi Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto. We will deliver that to Kaitaia's treatment plant at Okahu Rd 4km away. We have also constructed a separate supply at the Sweetwater aquifer for bulk water carriers. Barring unforeseen delays, both supplies are due to start delivering water to customers this week.

Providing the alternative supply to Kaitaia would not have been possible without the assistance of Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto. I am also very grateful for the support we have received from government. Friday's funding announcement comes on top of $2 million already provided by the Provincial Growth Fund to help meet the costs of setting up emergency water supplies for Kaitaia, Kaikohe and Rawene.
The Covid-19 pandemic will be a challenge for us all. However, this drought has demonstrated that we can meet challenges by working together. I am confident we will continue to do so.


12 March 2020

No time for complacency

You may have seen large 'Save water now' signs posted prominently along key roads in your town over the past week. These restate our key water conservation messages and ask everyone to focus efforts on saving water in the bathroom and laundry: turn taps off, wash full loads, flush less often, and take shorter showers.

Following the rain many received over the past few days, it may be thought that these signs are 'too little, too late'. I don't agree. Now is the perfect time to remind all residents and visitors that we continue to face critical water shortages right across the district. While the rain was certainly welcome, especially for those on tank water supplies, it was far from drought-breaking. Only recently, flows in many of our key waterways were recorded at their lowest levels in 50 years. We need far more than 10 millimetres of rain to turn that around.

If you travel across the district, it quickly becomes obvious how seriously this drought is impacting our whenua. In the southern and eastern areas, the hills have turned a little greener since last week's rain. But around Kaitaia and further north, the hills remain seriously parched. The rain we did receive was patchy at best and if people become complacent about conserving water this could even work against us.

Readings from our most at-risk waterways show how dangerous this would be. Flows in the Wairoro Stream, which supplies Kaikohe, are dropping again after receiving some relief from the rain. The same is true for the Tirohanga Stream in Kawakawa, and Kaitaia's Awanui River. Until our water levels turnaround, water conservation efforts must continue.

Last week, I told you about progress we are making to provide two supplementary water supplies for Kaitaia. This work is progressing well, and we are on track to tap into these water sources by the middle of the month.

We are also making solid progress on supplementary supplies for Kaikohe. We announced a deal last week with Lake Omapere Trust to take 1500 cubic metres of water a day from Lake Omapere. The Omapere Taraire E Rangihamama X3A Ahuwhenua Trust has also provided permission to pipe the water over their land to our Taraire Hills Water Treatment Plant. Our remaining obstacle is the danger of a toxic algal bloom in the lake. This can be very difficult to treat, and we are now working closely with Northland District Health Board on ways to reconfigure our plant to effectively treat the lake water.

In the meantime, we are also investigating other water sources for Kaikohe and I will let you know about these as soon as details are confirmed.

Traditionally, autumn is the driest period of the year in the Far North. If that holds true this year, this drought is unlikely to end with a sudden deluge. Instead, we may climb out of this shortage over weeks and months. That's why our roadside signs are important. They remind us that this drought is far from over.


5 March 2020

Working together on water

Rain showers are being seen by many in the district this week for the first time in a long time. Forecasters say we can expect to see more scattered showers right through to the end of next week. Every drop of rain we get is like a gift - some may even have been lucky enough to have their water tanks recharged!

Welcome as they are, these showers are well short of the sustained rain we need to break the current drought. MetService long-range forecasters confirm that above-average temperatures will continue across Northland as high-pressure systems continue to dominate. There's little indication that tropical cyclones or tropical lows will head our way soon.

Northland Regional Council says waterways across the region are continuing to decline, with 96 per cent now running below drought flows. Groundwater levels are faring no better. Many coastal aquifers are at or near the lowest levels recorded since monitoring began in the early 1990s. Many long-time residents and farmers are also saying this is shaping up to be one of the worst droughts they have seen in the Far North.

But it's not all bad news. The Council is making real progress finding and tapping into supplementary water supplies for our worst-affected towns. In Kaitaia, work is progressing well on two projects to tap into the Aupouri aquifer. One will provide a tank farm at Sweetwater so bulk water carriers can fill up with water sourced from the aquifer and treated on-site. This water will go to rural users running out of rainwater and completely remove bulk water carriers from the Kaitaia town water supply. We aim to provide this solution by the middle of this month.

Our second project will provide relief directly to Kaitaia by piping water from a bore on the iwi-owned Sweetwater Farm directly to Kaitaia's water treatment plant. We are now laying 4km of pipe required to complete this job and are on track to have it completed in two weeks. This would not be possible without the input and collaboration of Te Rarawa and Ngai Takoto and I am hugely grateful for their support.

Our work to provide a supplementary water source for Kaikohe is progressing well and an announcement on this is imminent. At the same time, we are investigating alternative supply options we believe can provide Kaikohe with greater water resilience in the future. Again, we will announce these plans once they are confirmed.

The other water supply causing us concern is Omanaia-Rawene. Last week, we increased the resilience of this supply when we traced and fixed a significant leak in the system.

While we are achieving real wins finding supplementary supplies, these alone will not be enough to resolve the drought-related water shortages currently impacting our district. We need all residents to continue efforts to reduce water consumption by 25 per cent. By working together, we can get through this drought.


20 February 2020

Positive news for Kaitaia

I was very pleased to see Kaitaia residents had achieved significant water savings of 11.25 per cent last week. This shows the community understands the seriousness of the current drought and how this is impacting our water sources. Thank you Kaitaia for working hard to conserve this precious resource, and according to our latest figures, we are on track to equal or surpass those savings again this week.

I also have good news to share. Last week, the Council signed an agreement to take water from an aquifer bore that will allow us to remove bulk water carriers from the town supply during this drought. Bulk water carriers provide a vital service to our rural and remote residents who rely on rain water tanks for all their domestic water needs. This drought has seen many tanks run dry and for most of these residents, the Council’s treated water supplies are the only alternative source. Demand has risen dramatically. In January we provided 1,444 cubic metres of water to bulk water carriers compared to just 80 cubic metres in September. Currently, bulk water carriers account for around 7 per cent of the treated water we produce for Kaitaia.

The bore we have accessed is about 8km west of Awanui and contractors have started building a pipeline to a roadside access point. To get this supply up and running as quickly as possible, the Council is borrowing a portable water treatment plant from Watercare in Auckland. This will ensure the water we supply meets all applicable health standards. We aim to supply water from the bore in about three weeks relieving pressure on Kaitaia’s primary water source, the Awanui River.

This is just the beginning of efforts to find supplementary supplies for Kaitaia. We are talking to the owner of another bore that has the potential to be a second supply for Kaitaia. Despite these efforts, flows in the Awanui River continue to drop and this waterway is now at record low levels. We partially dammed the river last week to ensure there is enough water at the treatment plant intake pipe so we can continue an uninterrupted supply of water.

This week we applied our highest water restrictions to Paihia-Opua-Waitangi and Kawakawa-Moerewa. These communities are now on Level 4 water restrictions, limiting water use to drinking, cooking and washing only. To have four water supplies operating under Level 4 restrictions demonstrates just how serious this drought is. The last 12-month period has been one of the driest on record and, according Civil Defence, many Northland rivers are at their lowest flows in 50 years.
We have had success in finding short-term and long-term supplementary water supplies, but the best way to avoid serious interruptions to your water supply is to conserve the water we already have. We need to achieve 25 per cent reductions across the district and we all need to play our part.


13 February 2020

Help save water

Most Northland Age readers will be aware that there is a severe drought in the Far North: the worst in a long time. Water shortages are especially acute in Kaitaia and Kaikohe and we introduced Level 4 water restrictions in these towns last week. We are working hard and fast to find temporary water sources to supplement the Awanui River and Wairoro Stream, which are the main water sources for these towns. However, there is still a risk we will run out of water in these towns, particularly if people don’t make the 25 per cent water savings we are asking for. We hope to avoid this worst-case scenario and are following promising leads for supplementary water supplies for Kaikohe and Kaitaia.

In the long term, we plan to make the Aupouri aquifer a permanent water source and we are committed to completing this project next year. Many of you will say this project has been delayed for far too long and many will be disappointed we are facing these shortages. We accept that we could have prioritised this project for completion sooner. However, it is also important to remember that the whole of Northland is experiencing record-breaking weather conditions that our water supplies aren’t designed to cope with. We are also putting in place contingency plans as a proactive measure. Civil Defence Northland delivered three emergency water storage tanks to Kaikohe last week and tanks were installed near Te Ahu in Kaitaia on Tuesday.

We will only use these if we can no longer draw water from our usual sources and back-up sources are not available. Again, we hope it won’t be necessary to use these, but this will depend on whether households and businesses make meaningful reductions to their daily water use.

Sixty-five percent of the water used in the average New Zealand home is used in the bathroom, so we urge people to take shorter showers and to flush toilets less. You can also reduce water flushed by putting a full water bottle into the toilet cistern. If everyone made these small sacrifices, we would significantly improve our chances of getting through this drought without needing to resort to emergency measures. Please, if you haven’t already done so, think about what contribution your household or business can make to our water conservation campaign.

I am hearing comment about bulk water carriers taking water from town supplies. For Kaitaia, we are fast-tracking work on a temporary supply for Te Hiku bulk water carriers so they can tap into the Aupouri aquifer. We are also working on a similar solution for Kaikohe. This will allow bulk water carriers to refill the water tanks without having to transport water long distances from the east coast or put further pressure on our town supplies.

There is still time to avert a water crisis where the taps run dry, but this will depend on all of us playing our part.


6 February 2020

Conserving our precious water

The New Year is traditionally a time when the nation heads to the beach and there's little news to share. Not so this year. Our region has already recorded some major and exciting wins. These include the Government's recent announcement of a $109.7 million to upgrade the rail line from Auckland to Whangarei and plans to reopen the spur to Otiria in Moerewa. The upgrade will allow for a container terminal to be built at Whangarei, and this will be a catalyst for our agricultural, horticultural and forestry industries.

Another significant announcement from the Government was made last week adding an extra $12.7 million grant to last year's $18.5m funding package from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF). This will further progress water storage projects in Kaikohe and Kaipara for our horticulture and industry. This is great news for the Kaikohe and whole region, and brings total funding for these projects to $31.2m.

As you know, our water supplies are under serious pressure right across the Far North with Level 4 water restrictions now in place for both Kaitaia and Kaikohe. This is an unprecedented situation and is due to the unusually dry winter we experienced in 2019. Northland Regional Council has confirmed it was the driest year in decades in many parts of Northland. This weather has continued with high temperatures and very little rainfall this summer. Unfortunately, forecasters are predicting this will continue for weeks or even months.

Some of you have asked how the Council has allowed this to happen. The simple answer is our water sources cope well in normal summer conditions, as do our treatment plants and other infrastructure. However, they were not designed for the record-breaking weather conditions we are now experiencing. Building water supplies to cope with extraordinary weather events is hugely expensive and your elected members have chosen to follow a more balanced planning approach.

Climate change means we need to reassess our plans and we are working with other Northland councils on ways to meet the challenges we now face in the years and decades to come. We are also working on solutions right now. For Kaitaia, we are pressing ahead with a project to make the Aupouri aquifer a supplementary water source for Kaitaia. We are committed to this project and plan to have it completed next year. We are fast-tracking a temporary supply for bulk water carriers so they can resupply water tanks for our rural residents in Te Hiku without travelling across the district. That supply should be operational within weeks. We have also completed work on a new water bore for our Opononi and Omapere. The Smoothy Road bore is now undergoing final tests and will begin supplying customers next week.

Without doubt we are facing very serious water shortages right across the district. The solution is rain, and plenty of it. Until that happens, we are asking everyone to help conserve the water supplies we have.

 

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