Colin Young – a lifetime of protecting the south from floods
When Colin Young first arrived in Southland in 1979 the plan was short and simple – get in, get the job done and get out. More than 40 years later and recently retired, he shares what kept him in the deep south all this time.
Growing up in Balclutha and Oamaru before heading to Christchurch to study, Colin Young was employed by the Southland Catchment Board as a fresh-faced engineering graduate out of the University of Canterbury.
Southland had many flooding issues in the early 1970s, which led farmers to petition the Southland Catchment Board to provide rural flood protection. “We had some major floods in the seventies and eighties. That’s when I was brought in, post the 1978 floods where most of the South Island flooded.”
While work was already underway on the rural schemes, these floods highlighted inefficiencies in the network. There was a mammoth task ahead for him. Colin was placed in charge of the flood protection designs of the Mataura, Ōreti, Aparima and Waiau catchments. This work was already in the pipeline and in some areas had begun before his arrival, however the 1978 flood was the catalyst for the government to grant and fasttrack funding to the Catchment Board for these projects. This funding was allocated through the National Water and Soil Conservation Authority (NWSCA).
“If the works were more than $50,000, cabinet approval was required for the government subsidy.” Then when the 1984 floods occurred, the work was prioritised even further by the government and the Invercargill city flood protection was also included. “Everyone thought the city was pretty good until the ’84 floods and large parts of Invercargill went under water.”
Colin had planned to come south for a few years and then head to the Middle East for work opportunities, but when the 1984 floods hit, he decided to stay and help a community in need. He was part of the Gore, Mataura and Wyndham urban upgrades, along with the Winton Dam and Ōreti River rural stop banks. “As well as being the design engineer, I also took on the role of site engineer because we did a lot of the construction in those days.”
Colin takes great satisfaction in knowing the designs worked, most recently in the February 2020 floods in Eastern Southland. “It proved the stop banks worked to their design.”
One of Colin's final projects had been collating the Climate Resilience Programme applications for government funding for some of the current projects with the late Paddy Haynes.
One of the biggest achievements in his career was the work towards the total catchment rating scheme – a change from a user-pays model to a total catchment model. The system, which acknowledges that everyone benefits either directly or indirectly, took 20 years to develop, collating the details from each catchment. To this day, this rating system is still being applied and other regional councils have adopted the principle after seeing the success in Southland. “The hard part was convincing the ratepayers that these adjusted principles were fairer.”
Looking back on his time with Environment Southland there had been some major advancements. “When I started they had just bought a PDP11/23, the first central-based computer, to do their rates and engineering works. The machine took up an entire room and took a long time to perform the calculations.” In those early days, the PDP11 took 37 hours to perform the water level calculations and they would have to book the computer for the weekend. “Now you can do the same job in a few seconds.”
So what kept him in the job for more than 40 years? “I know that the projects that I have put together have actually helped the community and I have become very much a part of the community. I enjoy living in Invercargill and being a Southlander.”
While still involved in the climate resilience projects but supposedly retired, for now, Colin is aiming to spend a bit more time on the golf course. “I’m trying to improve my golfing, it’s a process and it’s taking a bit of time.”
You can read the full Envirosouth magazine as a PDF online here.