Family ties, flood protection and building community resilience
The McPhail brothers grew up with the changing moods of the Mataura River and as adults are very conscious of how connected we all are to our rivers and the need to keep building community resilience in relation to them.
Richard and Jeremy McPhail are sixth generation descendants of Hugh and Grace McIntyre, pastoral leaseholders of the original 22,000-acre run, Merino Downs, in the hill country of the Waikaka Valley, northeast of Gore In the eighties, Richard left the farm to pursue what would become a 30-year career with the Police, but he's quick to point out that as the older brother, it was him that taught Jeremy to drive a tractor.
Today both brothers farm and hold governance positions as councillors in Murihiku Southland. Richard is with Gore District Council, and Jeremy is the Environment Southland councillor for the Eastern-Dome constituency. Their father, Neil, served four terms as councillor for Environment Southland. You could say it's in their blood.
They have a life-long connection to the Mataura River and its state of flow. As boys, they travelled over the Gore bridge every day to school. "You always paid attention to the river whether it was high, whether it was low, whether it was flooding," says Richard.
The flood protection schemes communities rely on in the Mataura catchment have taken on more relevance since they became councillors. "As a landowner, you pay close attention to flood protection schemes when you live along the flood banks. My real interest has developed through my role on Council and the realisation that these stop banks are our infrastructure – our assets that we have to look after," says Jeremy.
Richard says, “Plus, the river travels from A to B. It doesn't stop at a boundary. It doesn't understand the territorial authority. The Mataura River will flow from Fairlight to the coast, and it's up to us to figure out how we're going to live with the river and manage the effects of living close to it."
Both brothers recall the ‘100-year flood' in 1978. "Being older, I remember the '78 floods quite vividly," says Richard. "It was such an expanse of water and such a major event to experience in your growing years."
Jeremy says, "It was unreal. I was nine years old, and I remember standing on the bridge with Dad, amazed at just how much water was flowing down the valley. I had never seen water like it before."
In February 2020, they knew a big one was coming. "The unknown was just how big it would be, and that was challenging. But today, we have the systems and technology in place to deal with such an event, and from my perspective, we saw that working extremely well,” says Jeremy. "There will be times when we can't hold all of the water back. We can only do so much. So, it certainly gave the community a bit of a wake-up call."
Richard expressed how their staff and the community in Gore showed immense resilience. "The information coming from the main emergency management base in Invercargill was great. Some of it was a bit scary, and understandably the staff had concerns for the township."
This work prompted a number of projects focused on upgrading Southland’s flood protection schemes. "At Environment Southland, we're engaging with the rural districts and with the Invercargill City Council on these upgrades. Some of the work requires tree removal, which may upset a few folks. But as a community, we need to realise the greater good of doing this work. It's about increasing the level of flood protection for communities and critical infrastructure," Jeremy says.
Richard says, "Gore is a rural town, a service town. It's so crucial for the rural community to protect their support centre. And vice versa. The same applies to Mataura, any of these small towns."
Jeremy says, "It might not seem like we benefit from these measures, but we are all linked economically and socially. The bigger picture is protecting certain assets throughout the province. There will be a cost to this, and we're working through that."
When the brothers are around the same tables on shared projects it’s not easy to leave work at work. "We talk about it, regardless; whether it's our roles as councillors, farming or the best comedy on TV. Working across the table has more pros than cons," says Richard.
Jeremy adds, "We bounce ideas off each other. We discuss governance and organisational structure. And I still talk with Dad. I joke with him that I'm still trying to fix all the problems he caused! Seriously, it's good sitting down with him – he's got a lot of knowledge from over the years."
"The worst part is that we often get mistaken for each other. People will come up and complain about something, and they will have the wrong brother! When I was in the Police, I used to pretend I was Jeremy," says Richard.
"But they always knew that I was slightly thinner and a wee bit better looking!" laughs Jeremy.
Richard has the final word, "At least I kept my hair!"
You can read the full Envirosouth magazine as a PDF online here.