Shifting ground

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    The tanker driver’s withering smirk didn’t require a response.

    Regular readers may recall his last water delivery coincided with the heavy downpours which broke summer’s drought – simply down to misfortune on our part, I’d thought. Last week’s, though, followed some of the heaviest deluges in years. Out east, roads were being washed away, the creek two doors down had once again swept away half the driveway… but, somehow, my grinning delivery man was being tasked with filling our dry tanks again in the middle of a cloudburst.

    Trouble was that, unbeknownst to us, the succession of 12 parched cracked-clay summers and 11 sodden winters had caused slippage. And these past storms had allowed the hillock we live upon to shift just enough to pull apart an underground pipe that fed the guttering to the tank. Because that’s the problem with infrastructure – it often succumbs to shifting ground.

    A costly case in point has been the power outages. It would seem extraordinary to think that Vector today actually tells Gulf News that part of the reason for a succession of blackouts has been unexpected high demand and they’re now looking into installing a backup generator on the island.

    Unexpected? Businesses and organisations have been clamouring to get people to holiday here during the school holidays as a way to survive the post-Covid economic meltdown. And that’s just the short-term rise in demand – in the longterm, Waiheke’s population is on the climb. How can our increasing demands on our island’s infrastructure have been unexpected?

    All of which is really a segue into the most important issue facing Waiheke: how to prepare properly for the shifting conditions of the next 30 years. Over the coming weeks, we’re facing some of the most monumental choices of our lives – from a General Election which will mould the health, social and economic responses to the defining global catastrophe of our lifetimes, to the debate over the Waiheke Area Plan which will determine how we live on the island until 2051.

    The consultation period for the area plan is now up and running. And for many people it may seem a dry, dusty and decrepit process to have to get involved in local planning. But just think what Waiheke was like 30 years ago and how much has changed – the viticulture, the fast ferries, the doubling of the population between 1987 and 2018, the reliance on tourism and commuting… and now consider the potential for change over another three decades.

    Succeed and we’ll all have full tanks and reliable power – fail and, well, we’ll have to face the withering smirks of life’s water delivery men as they help us prop up an ill-conceived island society and cope with the constant cracks in our piping.

    We’re certainly not all going to agree on the direction or even the destination, but it’s vital we take part. There will no doubt be battles over many of the themes in the local board’s 43-page document – but for the next few weeks it ought to be beholden on us to engage our friends, neighbours, colleagues… heck, even the person sitting on a nearby table on the ferry or in the Carpark Café or in the library or wherever you’re reading this.

    Here’s just a taste of the debate – and it comes with a trigger warning: yes, I’m going to use the word “reticulation”.

    A graph in the draft area plan shows Waiheke could be home to 11,000 people by 2051. Not a huge increase, admittedly, but there’s also an interesting titbit underneath which outlines how the current rate of building will leave us with a shortfall of 572 dwellings. Fail to provide these homes and “Waiheke will over time become less affordable and liveable. This could slow economic growth and population growth as the island may become less attractive particularly for lower paid workers, young families, the elderly and others.”

    But, then, where do we fit another 572 dwellings? Picture 10 of your favourite vine-strewn hillsides – now put 57 homes on each of them. How does that work for you? The big question here is confined in the simple sentence: “it has been difficult at this draft area plan phase to articulate a long term strategy to increase housing supply when the future of how wastewater is to be delivered has yet to be decided”.

    That’s on page 29. Flick back to page 16 and there’s a handy flow-chart that outlines three options for “improved water quality”: compliance monitoring of existing septic systems or upgrading to advanced on-site wastewater systems; or, if those two fail, “public consultations won investigating wastewater reticulation options”. This third option would clearly solve the issue over where to put the additional houses and would tie into the Regional Policy Statement (flick back to page 29) which “seeks a ‘quality compact urban model’ for urban Auckland including Waiheke”.

    This is just one thematic chain amid nine “outcomes” and 102 “key moves” which provide a framework for the area plan’s decision-making. And there’s clearly no easy solution to ensuring a growing, thriving, varied and vibrant community is furnished with the necessary infrastructure in the same low-density, village-y environment we cherish.

    The ground is shifting. And if we don’t check whether we’re prepared for change something’s going to crack. •   James Belfield

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