Sunday News

Bay’s wet future: Fight the

Why this bay on Auckland’s North Shore is a coastal story for all New Zealand: Do we fight back against climate change, or beat our retreat? Steve Kilgallon reports.


When rain began to fall 10 days ago, Kyle Aitken knew what would happen at Little Shoal Bay.

The story here is similar to that told across Auckland after the record rains. Cliffs on both sides of the bay slipped, bringing down trees and leaving houses dangerousl­y close to the edge. One slip covered the tennis court in clay and left trees lodged in the net. The sports field and carpark flooded. A surge of water scoured the concrete of the boatyard and chipped at the seawall.

Little Shoal Bay, nestled between the peninsulas of Northcote Pt and Birkenhead Pt on the Waitematā Harbour, is a canary in the climate change coal mine: The local debate on the future of this quiet corner of the North Shore is one due nationally as rising sea levels and increased weather events combine to threaten coastlines.

The bay is loved locally: A ribbon of native-thronged bushland trails down the valley to terminate in the shore’s largest freshwater wetland, next to a cricket field, tennis and petanque courts, bowling club, basketball hoop, Scout hall, playground, boat haulage yard and a grassy hill where the annual community carols are sung.

But the question is, with the land low-lying and flood-prone, can they all be saved?

Even before the rain,

Auckland Council had suggested to locals that they could not – rolling out the first of a citywide series of Shoreline Adaptation Plans here.

Climate change has already begun to etch its mark.

The local board installed a tidemeasur­ing chart showing the projected sea level in 2070: It would sit comfortabl­y above the road that runs across the bay to link Northcote and Birkenhead.

Maps on Climate Central suggest a 1.5m sea-level rise would take out 90% of Little Shoal Bay (it would, slightly more importantl­y, remove most of the nearby part of the northern motorway and both local ferry terminals).

Aitken grew up on Church St, on the bay’s eastern ridgeline, and about a decade ago began to notice the increasing power of the tides.

He set up a local Flood Alerts Facebook page after the night he went to the bowling club to tell the patrons their cars were underwater, even though it hadn’t rained: ‘‘All these guys in their undies trying to save their cars.’’

Since then, he’s been a keen scientific researcher and environmen­tal advocate for the bay.

Aitken says four 1-in-100 year events have affected Little Shoal Bay in six years.

This was a freshwater flood, not the usual saltwater one. And it struck at low tide. But seawater rise also means an increase in king tides, and the next rainfall event could team up with a king tide – that would be bad.

Climate isn’t the sole issue. Infrastruc­ture plays a part.

When a tidal gate and stormwater flap (devices which stop an incoming tide breaching) failed, the council didn’t replace them, increasing flood events.

Stormwater pipes are also insufficie­nt, Aitken believes, and rising sea levels will only worsen that, because they drain by gravity and a rising sea pushes back. Surveying the sodden landscape, Aitken says: ‘‘This is an example of what will come . . . just overlay Mission Bay on to this.’’

Later, he looks around again, and says: ‘‘Take a place like Whangamatā or Tauranga, all those flat areas, and add on 50cm sea level and a 50cm storm surge, plus the rain we’ve just had and . . . chaos.’’

Oceanograp­her Dr Malcolm Bowman explains that two separate climate effects hit places like Little Shoal Bay: Sea-level rise, and storm surge, driven by winds and low pressure lifting the ocean up to cause extra-high tides.

Sea-level rise, he says, is like a chronic disease – slowly getting worse over time.

The council’s answer was the shoreline adaptation plan, sketching out options. About 850 locals, many motivated by a Save Our Bay campaign, submitted, the majority opting for what the council calls ‘hold the line’ actions, to save existing amenities. The plan suggests a bund next to the seawall and riparian planting, raising the cricket field, and another bund around that and the bowling club car park, while allowing the sea to take over part of the southern end of the bay as a saltmarsh sink for floods.

The issue is whether it can make such an investment on the entire coastline and whether other areas will want in on it, too. ‘‘It’s not feasible in the long term to do it everywhere,’’ reckons Aitken.

Local councillor Richard Hills drove the process as chair of the city’s environmen­t committee. Little Shoal Bay was one of the first completed plans. But on the phone he sounds resigned: ‘‘We will have to update our plans, see if they are all still relevant – even though they were written last year, we’ve seen significan­t changes around what was expected.’’

Hills says part of the planning is helping people understand they cannot save everything. Priorities include preserving the road (which will eventually need raising) and protecting the park and sports facilities.

‘‘But people need to understand we will not be able to protect the majority of the reserve in situations like this.’’

Hills says they will absolutely maintain the fight for the big stuff.

‘‘Reserves, amenities, roads, sportsfiel­ds are important, we are not going to not protect things: But the discussion is how long it is viable to continue to use spaces as we are now.’’

The time has come, he says, to stop simply rebuilding everything that breaks. Instead, he says we need to start talking about what might change over the next half-century.

But Little Shoal Bay Protection Society’s Adrian Meys derides the shoreline adaptation plan as short-term fixes that may last only five years.

Two decades ago he helped restore the freshwater wetlands here, and when the tidal flap and gate failed, secretly rebuilt them.

Meys says the council should formally restore the tidal gate and flap and raise the seawall significan­tly, and ‘‘that would give you 50 to 100 years’ worth of breathing space’’.

It would be cheaper than a managed retreat, which he says would mean raising the road level and shifting a sewer main. ‘‘The costs in doing something are far cheaper than the costs of doing nothing,’’ he says. ‘‘We have to put numbers on this work, because we want them [council] to start to talk about costs, and they won’t.’’

He says the council plan is a ‘‘lesson on how not to adapt to climate change’’ and represents ineffectua­l tinkering.

‘‘What a waste of time,’’ he says. ‘‘Hold the line for 50 to 100 years, or don’t do it, do a staged retreat . . . but they are doing neither of those things.’’

Aitken and Meys have a shared fear for the future of the venerable Northcote Bowling Club, which has occupied its site in the north-east corner of the bay since 1913.

The floodwater­s lapped about a half-metre inside the clubrooms, and soaked the two greens.

Outside, sewage pumping out of a manhole mixed with stormwater turned the car park into a filthy lake.

By Wednesday, volunteers had ripped up the carpets and were sweeping the greens to try to avoid silt settling.

The damage was being assessed, but so far ran to carpets, flooring, skirting boards, cupboards, and bar fridges. Floods have been a regular part of life here; the 2017 sea floods destroyed the greens, but the club hopes the freshwater won’t cause the same damage.

Realistic that they may not be able to stay forever, club members still blame the council for not restoring the tidal gates and leaving the site so open to flooding.

‘‘We are reliant on the council coming to the party to protect us,’’ says treasurer Shaun


‘‘[Richard] Hills would be probably one of our worst enemies from the point of view of him saying let it return to nature – well, hang on, a lot of people use this place, a lot of people use that field out there.

‘‘So return to nature is all very well, but you are taking away a big community facility if you do that.’’

Chairman Gerard von Tilborg, a plain speaker who once sat on the board of the New Zealand Rugby Union, says: ‘‘We are not climate deniers, there is no doubt it is part of it, but there is a multitude of issues. We are low-lying, we have got to acknowledg­e that and manage it, but there are improvemen­ts that could be done.’’

He thinks some sea protection would be an ‘‘easy fix’’ and also protect neighbouri­ng bush tracks.

‘‘The outlook here, when it is not covered in water, is magnificen­t,’’ says von Tilborg.

But he says that if the council won’t manage the water, then the club should be compensate­d and helped to relocate.

‘‘Council officers are excited by this becoming a marinised zone, but they forget their neighbours – and if they want to go down that path, get your chequebook out . . . $15 million is probably the right number.’’

That hints at a wider problem – a council with barely enough money to protect its own land will also be called upon to help others. Malcolm Bowman, who owns a section at Hahei, says: ‘‘Real estate agents used to promote absolute beachfront as desirable to own houses built right on the water’s edge with an unobstruct­ed view.

‘‘It’s turning out that’s not such a good idea. The superwealt­hy will just move, the rest will suffer.’’

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 ?? ABIGAIL DOUGHERTY/STUFF ?? Left: Kyle Aitken stands in the scoured-out boatyard, where a surge of water raced through.
Above: The tennis court copped the brunt of one of the many slips from the surroundin­g cliffs.
Right: Bowls club treasurer Shaun Bayne amid the clean-up effort.
ABIGAIL DOUGHERTY/STUFF Left: Kyle Aitken stands in the scoured-out boatyard, where a surge of water raced through. Above: The tennis court copped the brunt of one of the many slips from the surroundin­g cliffs. Right: Bowls club treasurer Shaun Bayne amid the clean-up effort.
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