Saturday, October 30, 2010

on the creation of wetlands...

The last two days have seen me escape the desk and file room and trot off into the wide world again. I spent Thursday checking out subdivisions in the coastal dune environments north of Wellington and then today on the majical Kapiti Island. They illustrated nicely the difference between purportedly creating nature and then just leaving it to do its thing for 112 years. The outcomes are somewhat disparate.

The coastal estates I went to were in large part, epic environmental failures. One was amazing and I hope the developer responsible gets an easy ride to heaven (ka pai my brother, ka pai). But the other three were dismal. All were retired pastoral estates that were to be fashioned into posh subdivisions with the standard suite of features being sea views or proximity at least, cheesily named Lanes and Dales (quite often named after the miscreant that the proposed the whole disaster I have noticed) and plastic infrastructure with an asset life about as long as the laptop I am writing this on.

Nevertheless, the purported saving grace of these little oases from the stress of everyday life was that they would create or recreate WETLANDS! The boggy, swampy, marshy geek kids of the ecosystem world. All the developments proposed to create wetland wonderlands where stormwater could go and settle out before entering the nearest waterway and wildlife could frolic metres from the future new residents in a perfect semblance of high class country estate and 'sustainability'.

And a wonderful concept it is...where it works it's great. The wetland areas absorb the stormwater from the development, performing a utility function, and extensive ecosourced revegetation calls all the usual suspects to bear...scaup, coots, mallards, pukeko (when it isnt appearing in Genesis ads) and if you're lucky, the tiny dabchick. I know it works because I have seen it...which makes it all the more frustrating when I must spend an afternoon plodding around what might be politely described as abject failures.

These created wetlands.....sigh. Steep sided ponds with no vegetation on the outside (oh no wait, some had weeds in abundance) give way to copper brown water and algal wonderlands. They drain out through choked channels with sludge layers thicker than my bootsole. The tributary they flow into carries a plume tens of metres down the line as a reminder of what happens when muppets get to play in the environment for their own fiscal gain.

And these wetlands (according to the application and the advertising that persists) that were to be created were intended to be centrepieces of the fine stately development itself. But instead they sit idle with perhaps one lone mallard trawling around in them forlornly. A spur-winged plover shrieks protectively from the grassless common area adjacent which has the odd miserable liquidamber shoved into the ground. In the worst case, thick mounds of litter are strewn around the shoreline where it's not too steep and theres no water motion to disperse it.

In 50 years I intend to hop into by then vintage Toyota Corolla hatchback, walking stick in tow. I will stalk the coastline of New Zealand to see what became of these coastal developments orchestrated by muppets. And I hope not to see sterile ponds void of life; but functioning, richly planted and well maintained wetland environments.

Because creating those were the trade-off for introducing the pressures of 80 more families less than 200 metres from the beach. they were the tradeoff for 29000 square metres of earthworks where the topsoil mysteriously disappeared. They were also the tradeoff for clearing whatever was left of natural vegetation and restricting a dune system with three foot high retaining walls (yeh, good luck with that). It was part of a deal and one side just keeps defaulting.

If they continue to be what they are today then the walking stick will become a weapon. But perhaps sea level rise will beat me to it. One can only hope...


  1. Another great post MAB, keep 'em coming. The great benefits of artificial wetlands (to the "developers") are twofold.

    First they're a cheap form of greenwash, effective at salving the consciences of buyers in the luxury market who want an excuse not to do without: you pay up, they're planted, you ignore them and go to the farmers' market in your SUV for brunch - all's right with the world.

    Second and more insidious, they're tradeable. Promise a wetland in a gorse-covered gully that you picked up for a song, and in return any Kiwi council will waive its zoning "rules" and let you subdivide prime productive land, often kilometres away. The council gets a rates windfall (and, if my growing suspicions are correct, kickbacks from infrastructure contracts for which there otherwise wouldn't have been a pretext). The environment gets a few crumbs and the impact of dozens more polluters. The so-called "developer" gets a massive windfall. (At a district council meeting I attended not long ago, a developer's lawyer stated that 19% p.a. return on investment was a typical trigger point for development; below that the developers, their bankers and investors didn't consider most projects worth starting. This wasn't conceded as it should have been - a shameful admission of greed. On the contrary it was stated openly and held over the council as a tacit threat: the project in question would be abandoned if the council imposed compliance terms that reduced the developer's profit to anywhere near that 19% threshold.)

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