Kia ora. What a week! We hope you’ve all come through last weekend’s extreme weather event relatively dry and safe.
Header image: stormwater ponds at Hobsonville Point. Image via Twitter.
The week in Greater Auckland
There’s been a storm of information and debate since the worst of the flooding unfolded on Friday, and a short posting week for us.
On Tuesday, Matt pulled together some thoughts on the deluge and how the city was affected.
Fuel tax extended
In a week that felt absolutely packed with news, from seemingly endless rainstorms to a new Minister for Auckland issues, one item that may have slipped through was the announcement that the fuel tax cut and PT subsidy will be extended until the end of June. It’s an expensive policy, and not one we’re big fans of. Will June really be the end of it?
The 25 cent cut to the petrol excise duty, a cut to road user changes for diesel, and a half-price subsidy on public transport would cost an estimated $718 million.
“We found sufficient funding to be able to fund this extension. Now this extension takes us through till the end of June, won’t escape anybody, that’s when the new budget period starts,” Robertson said.
the year is 2037. parliament is beachside property. the NZ navy’s main job is keeping out climate refugees. the fuel tax cut is extended for another few months.
— henry cooke (@henrycooke) January 31, 2023
Mark Daalder from Newsroom picked up on the Prime Minister’s claim that the reinstating the fuel tax wouldn’t have an effect on emissions, which is, according to Daalder, incorrect.
[…] reduced fuel excise and road user charges would lead to a 1 to 2 percent increase in vehicle kilometres travelled over the five-month period and a corresponding increase in emissions of 54,000 to 99,000 tonnes.
If that rate of emissions persists through the five-and-a-half month extension to the policy, which was announced in July, the tax cuts could ultimately result in more than 200,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution.
There’s lots of other ways cost of living could be eased without contributing to our emissions. How about that ebike subsidy? That seems like one really obvious option. Many other places are trying them out, and we’re predicting ebike subsidies are only going to become more widespread in 2023.
the government should halve the cost of me getting my bike serviced and my brake pads replaced
— em (@eamonnmarra) January 31, 2023
Or what if some of that money was put towards enhancing public transport service reliability, to support David Faitaua in his quest to encourage Aucklanders to embrace public transport?
Why is it when I mention I take the bus to work people gasp with horror and reply 'You take the bus?' or chuckle 'What in gods name are you doing on the Loser Cruiser?' So many good reasons to ride public transport yet for many it determines my status. Is this an Auckland thing?
— Daniel Faitaua (@DanielFaitaua) February 1, 2023
Understanding the flooding
Despite the day of non-stop rain on Friday, the suddenness and severity of the afternoon’s floods took everyone by suprise, and there’s been some good work done in the days since to try and understand what happened.
Earlier in the week, the Spinoff’s Bulletin newsletter provided this very clear explanation of an atmospheric river:
What is an atmospheric river and how much rain did Auckland get?
Auckland has now had over 769% of its normal January rainfall and over 38% of its annual rainfall. The cause? An atmospheric river. James Renwick of Victoria University explained what one is really well in comments provided by the Science Media Centre. Atmospheric rivers are vast corridors of moisture that extend from the tropics to higher latitudes. The warmer the temperature, the more water vapour they carry. A significant atmospheric river carries as much water as the Amazon river. The Herald’s Jamie Morton outlines what we know about the second atmospheric river headed our way today.
Newsroom’s Mark Daalder, again, summed up several key datapoints of the flooding in a collection of excellent and simple charts.
The CRL tunnels took on a lot of water, too. The extent of the damage, and how that will affect construction progress, isn’t clear yet, but it sounds like floodwater came into the tunnels at Mt Eden and carried on downhill from there.
We understand a lot of the water got in at the Maungawhau/Mt Eden site. As you can see from this CRLL schematic, it's all downhill from there. The new photo was taken Saturday, so after an all-night pumping job pic.twitter.com/5aLJsqQGqz
— Oliver Lewis (@OliverLewis) January 31, 2023
And it wasn’t just Auckland that was hit either. In the Coromandel, SH25A has provided us with a stark example of what can happened to infrastructure under sustained pressure from extreme weather. On the 25th of January, just Wednesday last week, Waka Kotahi was on RNZ talking about a series of ominous and deep cracks that had appeared in the road. By Saturday, it had collapsed.
SH25A Partial Collapse – nah, its gone burgers.
Just in from NZTA is need that a large section of the road at summit of SH25A between Kopu and Hikuai has collapsed late this afternoon.
The road will remain closed and the 309 Rd and Tapu Coroglen also remain closed. pic.twitter.com/xdVUEGHWaV
— Melanie D. #CovidIsNotOver (@melulater) January 28, 2023
Perhaps one aspect that has made this flooding event feel so catastrophic is the background fear many of us have that it’s a sign of things to come. As Olivia Wannan at Stuff reports, rain records are simply going to keep on falling. Warmer air holds more moisture, so a warmer climate is likely to produce more extreme weather.
“Every tenth of a degree matters. Every decision we make now matters – whether that’s buying an EV instead of a gas-guzzling 4×4, whether it’s taking the bus instead of the car, whether it’s not flying, whether it’s government agricultural policy, everything makes a difference. It is in our power. But the longer we leave it, the harder it gets.”
We are already, unfortunately, in a kind of new normal, one in which floods that were once classified as ‘in one hundred years’ may start being redefined. This article on Medium argues that people planning major infrastructure projects are routinely underestimating the increased risk from flooding, and need to urgently adapt.
Climate change has exacerbated the problem by making historic flood data obsolete. But many engineers and policymakers keep using the old data — or make insufficient updates and adjustments — and seem surprised when extreme flooding happens.
But a 500-year event that is becoming more common is not only an oxymoron. It is no longer a 500-year event, but instead a sign of a new normal.
Finally, Tze Ming Mok dug up an epic-sounding 2019 Auckland Council report that paints a range of futures for the city, taking into account different climate change scenarios. (The report was the work of Alec Tang, then sustainability whiz at Council and now the same at Kāinga Ora).
Greening our way to a sponge city
In the weekend, we saw how water inundation behaved all over the city – and it was obvious that some areas were better at being ‘spongy’ than others. ‘Sponge cities’ is an approach to designing urban infrastructure that uses soft green tools instead of concrete and pipes to manage stormwater flows: things like planted swales and stormwater ponds. We’ve got a guest post on the topic coming up next week – but a few others have already been talking about sponge cities in relation to Tāmaki Makaurau.
Councillor Julie Fairey spoke to Kim Hill about sponge cities and invisible infrastructure on RNZ on Tuesday, relating how successfully the regenerated parts of Te Auaunga Oakley Creek carried stormwater and reduced flooding in nearby homes.
On the same day, The Spinoff published a piece by Dr. Timothy Welch from the University of Auckland about sponge cities, and soft versus paved infrastructure.
The concept incorporates green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavements to absorb and filter water. Better catch systems hold rainwater where possible and reuse it. More green space and trees are also incorporated into street and neighbourhood designs.
Within the sponge city concept is a way to mitigate flooding using “water sensitive urban design”. With this approach, we create spaces that better manage flooding through systems that mimic the natural water cycle.
And a deep dive into the concept, from The Guardian earlier last year, coins the phrase ‘slow water’ – the opposite of the shockingly sudden flooding that drenched Auckland on Friday night.
But when water slows and stalls on land, that’s when the magic happens, providing habitat and food for many forms of life above and below. The key to greater resilience, say the water detectives, is to find ways to let water be water, to reclaim space for it to interact with the land. Innovative water management projects aim to slow water on land in some approximation of natural patterns. For that reason, I’ve come to think of this movement as “Slow Water”.
And today in Stuff, Nikki Macdonald digs deep on the question ‘We’ve paved paradise, how do we let the water out?’. The article offers some great examples of what lies beneath ordinary looking playing fields and grassy areas, the different between superficially pretty rain gardens and real stormwater contingency planning, and ends with a great question from Prof Welch:
“Every headline is ‘Is this a wake-up call for Auckland?’. But if you look back to three weeks ago when we had Cyclone Hale, that was also a wake-up call and there are other wake-up calls. So at some point, we’re just going to have to wake up and actually do it.”
Turning towards more resilient modes
While cars were floating up off the tar seal all over the city, we heard of a few epic bike rides home through the city as it flooded. As should hopefully be clear to everyone – especially after reading Olivia Wannan’s piece linked above – if we stay committed to fossil fuels and big, high-carbon infrastructure projects, we’re only going to increase our exposure to extreme weather events. So it’s good to remember there’s one very available, very cost-effective solution right under our noses.
The New Yorker had a great piece recently all about the ebike boom in the USA. It’s a good read if you’re new to ebikes, or just starting to consider trying one out.
In 2020, Americans bought more than twice as many e-bikes as they did electric cars (score: an estimated 500,000 to 231,000). In China, e-bikes outnumber all cars, e- and not e-, Edward Benjamin, the chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, told me over the phone from his house in Fort Myers, Florida. He went on, “Can Americans change from a four-wheel culture to a two-wheel culture in the next century? I say absolutely! There ain’t enough roadway, there ain’t enough materials to build cars, there ain’t enough wealth to sustain the car culture.”
Are ebikes the new smartphone? This tech analyst thinks they might be. Electric vehicles are just an example of sustaining an existing technology – they are merely better cars. But he thinks ebikes are truly disruptive – and we just haven’t realised yet.
There’s all these small vehicles all over the world, literally hundreds of millions, and nobody’s counting them, nobody’s measuring how many miles [they travel], what’s their impact on carbon, are they being shared, what’s the supply chain, what’s the time to market — nothing.
The ebike subsidies we wish we had: we’re looking longingly at Denver, Colorado, where an ongoing programme of ebike subsidies is proving so popular that the January allocation sold out in less than half an hour.
Ebike City can't be satiated.
It looks like residents exhausted the latest round of incentives in less than 24 minutes in the dead of winter. https://t.co/N93tVNu20s
— Sam Brasch (@samuelbrasch) January 31, 2023
It seems to be an idea that’s spreading, because in Hawaii a bill has just been passed that will offer school kids ebike subsidies of up to $2000.
Resident Matthew Rittenhouse put forward the idea that an effective way to tackle school run traffic would be to incentivise the youth to cycle, with some emphasis placed on electric bikes as a solution that would further engage pupils.
Which makes total sense, right? It gets cars that would otherwise have been delivering kids off the road, and it makes the school run much more fun.
Let’s make the school run an enjoyable one all over the country. Christchurch in #Dorset has started its own #bikebus. Meet the children and grown-ups who ride their bikes as part of a group every Friday @BCPCouncil @bhactivetravel #joyinjourneys #transportindependence pic.twitter.com/iQOWqrHnXO
— Active Travel England (@activetraveleng) January 31, 2023
These young campaigners in Toronto are pretty clear that they’d much rather be getting around by bike, safely of course, than in the back of Mum’s car.
Bikes might even make one of life’s most onerous chores – moving house – more fun, according to this wonderful story.
So today I helped out some beautiful souls move house.. By bike. I went along cause they're lovely & I wanted to help, but also for the novelty & adventure. It was a great experience but also a magic lesson on the importance of community. pic.twitter.com/IYxDueT78b
— Dean (@Ka_eke_Pahikara) January 29, 2023
A tērā wiki. Have a restful Waitangi weekend, and see you next week.