A government decision to veto funding from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) to dredge the Mahurangi River will force dredging operations to cease by the end of this month, unless the cash can be found elsewhere.
The Mahurangi River Restoration Trust started dredging in earnest last year after the Rodney Local Board allocated $250,000 towards the $5.1 million cost of the project.
The aim of the dredging is to reap a host of aesthetic, recreational and economic benefits for generations to come.
By Christmas, the trust had raised $1.5 million from various sources, but hoped to get the bulk of the rest of the money – about $3.5 million – from the PGF.
The trust applied for funding about nine months ago although, technically, the project was not eligible because it fell within the Auckland region and Warkworth is not considered “provincial”.
However, Mahurangi River Restoration Trust management committee chair Steve Burrett says during months of negotiations, officials led the trust to understand that this would not be a handicap because the economic benefits would be felt beyond Auckland.
“The whole way through we were led to believe that although we were in Auckland, the project had such potential for the southern area of Northland that we would qualify,” he says.
But in mid-January, the trust received a letter from fund investment director Paul Swallow saying that the application was denied because the project was in the Auckland region.
Restoration Trust trustee Peter Thompson describes the decision as a “kick in the guts” and Mr Burrett calls it “soul-destroying”.
Rodney MP Mark Mitchell is annoyed that the determination of whether or not the trust was eligible, based on its location, was not made at the outset.
Meanwhile, the trust maintains that this is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to return the river to a healthy condition.
The land-based disposal arrangements for the dredged silt is only available for another two years. The alternative of dumping the silt at sea will ramp up the cost to about $20 million.
The trust says the dredging so far has been successful with two tugs, a barge and a digger having excavated the Warkworth Town Basin so that there is now 1.5 metres of water at low tide.
Access for boats and fish stocks in the river has already noticeably improved, the trust says. But Mr Burrett is adamant the trust can’t continue without more cash.
“We can’t operate if we are insolvent’,” he says.
Mr Swallow did provide a glimmer of hope when he wrote to the trust, saying he would investigate other government funding possibilities.
Rodney Councillor Greg Sayers says Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is sympathetic to the river dredging and may be prepared to provide Council funding, but only if the government shares some of the cost, since the benefits will extend beyond Auckland ratepayers.
A ceremonial removal of the first bucket of silt from the river took place on August 24 last year before a gathering of supporters. At the time, trust campaign manager Kathryn Ashworth said the dredging promised free movement of boats over all tides, bringing large numbers of tourists and encouraging dozens of water-based activities and businesses involved in boating and sightseeing.
A spokesperson for the government’s Provincial Development Unit confirmed that Provincial Growth Funds had been denied for Mahurangi River dredging because it fell within the Auckland region.
“Our robust assessment process can take some time – particularly if we are required to do further research or seek clarification from applicants,” he said.