Nelson and Tasman Floods


Floods have, and will continue to have, a significant impact on the city of Nelson, particularly the Maitai / Mahitahi River, the Brook or York Streams,  and more widely across the Tasman region.  Flooding has wrought havoc on property, and resulted in injury and even death to residents.

Nelson Flooding

From the time of Pakeha settlement, and the surveying and clearing and development of the land, the Maitai / Mahitahi catchment streams and river has flooded several times: 1844, 1879, 1904, 1908, 1910, 1916, 1918, 1960s and significantly, in 1970.

As early as 1913, land clearance was identified as a cause of flooding. A letter to the Nelson Evening Mail on 10 March 1913 from H G Kingsland addresses the “great question of deforestation”.  Prior to the arrival of European settlers, most of the Maitai Valley (and indeed most of Nelson) would have been covered in toe-toe, fern and manuka, with dense stands of podocarp forest on the flats. What is now known as “The Wood”, was once about 60 hectares of native beech and kahikatea trees. This area provided the early settlers with timber for buildings and firewood, though sadly even this does not remain as kahikatea proved not to be a durable timber.

Clearing the land, residential building, wetland drainage, and reclamation has necessitated the many modifications on the streams to mitigate flooding.

The Flood and slips of 2011

On Tuesday 13 December, 2011, as people began to plan for summer, it began to rain and didn't stop until Thursday 15 December. The torrential rain was caused by a trough stalled between a low in the Tasman Sea and a high to the east of New Zealand. It was a one in 500 year downpour for Tākaka and a one in 250 year event in Nelson.A "pipeline" of rain had developed as subtropical moisture barreled in from the north Tasman Sea.2

Bisley Avenue slump. Flood Dec. 2011. Photo NCC Click image to enlarge

The disaster was the worst the region had seen for decades. A third of Tākaka's normal annual rainfall (674mm) fell over two days. The coastal strip from Brightwater to north of Hira, including the hills behind Nelson also suffered from the deluge. At Richmond, 280mm was measured over 48 hours - more than a quarter of Richmond's normal annual rainfall.3

Rocks Road slip, Dec. 2011. The Nelson Mail
Click image to enlarge

A state of emergency was declared on the evening of Wednesday 14 December following a day of heavy rain. The Matai / Mahitahi River rose, flooding its banks, precautionary sandbags were laid and several roads were closed.Hillsides became waterlogged and slipped - tons of mud, water and debris poured across farmland, roads and into houses.5

By 15 December, the band of intense weather began to move away from Nelson and the region began to assess the damage. There were multiple road closures and damaged properties.  Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes. Residents in Nelson's Wood area were evacuated as police feared a slipping hillside might collapse onto their houses.6 An apartment building on Wakefield Quay was evacuated due to a slip behind the building.About 30 homes above a major slip in Rocks Road were evacuated as a precautionary measure.8

State Highway 6 around Nelson's waterfront was closed, with peak traffic gridlocked on the main route between Richmond and Nelson.9 A slip put the city's water supply at risk and contractors worked furiously to stabilise the Maitai pipeline just below the Maitai Dam.10

Cable Bay/ Rotokura was cut off for several days with many slips along the only road in to the small community. Network Tasman linesmen were flown in to restore power and supplies were taken in by helicopter.11

Wainui Hill Totaranui Road. Flood 2011. Photo TDCWainui Hill Totaranui Road. Flood Dec. 2011 Photo TDC
Click image to enlarge

Groundwater on the Waimea Plains rose to unprecedented levels and large parts of Moturoa / Rabbit Island remained flooded five weeks later.12

In Golden Bay / Mohua the year was bookended by floods. In January 2011, floods described as the worst in 169 years, devastated parts of Golden Bay /Mohua, causing more than 6 million in damage. The swollen Anatoki and Aorere rivers raged through homes, washed stock downstream, destroyed bridges and damaged roads and power lines.13

In the December event, the rainfall was mainly coastal, and the lower country, unaccustomed to such heavy rain, became saturated and bore the brunt of the damage.14  People in Ligar Bay fled to higher ground as a wave of trees, mud, rocks and water thundered down the valley.15   Mike Robertson's 430-hectare Wainui Bay dairy farm was ravaged by 12 landslides which covered his paddocks, trapped 300 cows and left the land covered in up to five metres of mud. He expected it would take about a year to clean up the farm.16

Collingwood was cut off by a large slip on Birds Hill, and in Pōhara up to 30 Pōhara homes were damaged by a dam bursting.17 The winding road between Wainui Bay and Tōtaranui was blocked by slips and remained closed through the summer.18  In February, the New Zealand Transport Agency agreed to provide 2 million for the road's restoration as part of its Golden Bay / Mohua recovery package.19

It was considered incredible that nobody died in the disaster, but there were a few close calls.  Ian Watts (77) was carried several hundred metres from his Clifton property when a deluge of water from nearby Ellis Creek tore through his house and carried him out onto his paddock. He suffered only a broken finger and wound to his hand.20  A huge rock dislodged from the hillside above Rocks Road slammed into the side of a four wheel drive vehicle as the driver waited in a queue of traffic - he was unhurt.21

By Saturday, 17 December, inspections were underway on more than 300 homes throughout Nelson/Tasman and nearly 140 properties were issued with red or yellow stickers.22  In February 2012, about 70 families were still unable to return to their homes. It was estimated that flood repairs and recovery for the whole region would cost around $40 million: about $15 million for Nelson and close to $25 million for Tasman. It was expected that recovery projects would take up to 10 years to complete, with the costs spread across that period.23

Forty five section 124 (red or yellow sticker) notices remained on properties in Nelson - mainly around Haven Road, Tāhunanui Drive and Princes Drive by the beginning of March 2012.24

Grove Street clean up. Flood Dec. 2011. Photo NCC
Click image to enlarge

Retired Nelson city engineer, Mac Crampton, said the 2011 flood in Nelson was less severe than a flood in September 1970 when two women died25 and dozens of Nelson homes were evacuated in what was then described as the worst flooding for almost 40 years.26 This flood had a significant impact on Nelson City Council infrastructure, taking out many bridges and roads. Despite some Government financial support, other capital projects, such as plans for new Library and Museum buildings, were delayed for many years.

There have been a number of major flood  events in the Nelson-Tasman region over the years, with severe flooding in 2010, 1986, 1983, 1970, 1957, 1947, 1929, 1904, 1895 - many of these causing severe slips and damage to equal the event of 2011. Search NIWA's historic weather events catalogue for information about floods in the region.  Key information sources are also listed as "Further sources" below.  

Follow the link below for video images of the December 2011 flood (scroll further down page for more images): Golden Bay flooding: amazement no one killed (2011, December 16)


Floods in February 2018

In February 2018 Nelson and Tasman were hit by ex-Cyclone Fehi and a few weeks later, Cyclone Gita. Fehi coincided with a king tide and wreaked havoc along the Nelson and Tasman coastline and damaged heritage buildings and structures - for example the Boathouse, Boatshed and Cawthron's posts and chain along Wakefield Quay. Cyclone Gita severely damaged infrastructure in the Tasman District, particularly the Tākaka Hill Road, Cobb Valley bridge and Mārahau. New reports documented the event:

Ex-cyclone Fehi - February 8 2018:

Cyclone Gita -  February 20/21 2018:


Floods in July 2021 
Flooding in Tasman District July 2021

Flooding in the Tasman District, July 2021. Photograph by Martin Doyle, Tasman District Council.

High winds and heavy rain swept across the top of the South Island and lower North Island from Friday 16th to Sunday 18th of July 2021. North Westland, Buller and parts of Marlborough had the worst weather with many homes and properties damaged, but Nelson and Tasman also had a massive amount of rain fall over two days. A rain gauge in Golden Bay / Mohua (Anatoki at Paradise) collected 649mm of rain over 48 hrs. 

Strong gusts of wind damaged trees and powerlines in Nelson and Tasman. The residents of the Owen River area and Upper Moutere lost their power and fallen branches and trees also blocked the road between Hira and Havelock. 

State highways into and out of the region were closed due to flooding, rockfalls, mud, and debris. Tākaka, Collingwood and Murchison townships were cut off and many other roads such as Motupiko to Kōhatu were closed as well. Heavy rain high in the hills contributed to high river levels.  The Motueka River bursts its banks near the outlet into Tasman Bay / Te Tai-o-Aorere, and homes near the Ruiwaka River had to be evacuated when it too became dangerously high. Livestock, orchards, and paddocks were damaged by the water.

Other impacts of the storm included the pathway along Rocks Road between Tāhunanui Beach and Port Nelson being damaged by strong sea swells. Walking and biking tracks such as the Heaphy Track also suffered storm damage and needed to be closed for repairs. 

Read more about the July 2021 storms:


Last update added July 27,2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Terry, F. and Cuff, T. (2012) After the Flood. New Zealand Geographic, March/ April  p.30-41. 
  3. Tasman District Council website
  12. Tasman District Council website
  14. Tasman District Council website
  16.  Terry, F.  and Cuff, T., p 36.
  23. Terry, F.  and Cuff, T.,  p 40.
  25. Moore, B. (2012, January 7) 1970 flood emergency brought deaths. Nelson Mail, p.13

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Further sources - Nelson and Tasman Floods


  • Bell, C.W. (1958) Unfinished business: the second fifty years of Nelson City Council. Nelson, NZ: Nelson City Council , p.18-19; pp 91-96
  • Cobb Dam Break Study (1996)  Wellington, N.Z.: Works Consultancy Services.
  • Clark, A. (1983). The Wrath of the Waters: The 1983 Takaka Valley Flood. [Nelson, N.Z.] : The Author
  • De Lisle, J. & Kerr, I. (1965) The climate and weather of the Nelson region  Wellington,N.Z.: NZ Met Service
  • Falconer, B.(1963) Stability of the hillside at Tahunanui, Nelson a report to the Nelson City Council, presenting the results of some further investigation into the problem of landslip of the Tahunanui hillside and outlining a scheme to improve the stability of the hillside. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson City Council.
  • Floods in New Zealand, 1920-53 with notes on some earlier floods (1957) Wellington, NZ: Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council
  • Grace, A. (1924) Jubilee history of Nelson City Council 1854-1924. Nelson, NZ: Nelson City Council
  • Johnston, M, (1995) Geotechnical assessment Tahunanui Slump, Nelson. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson City Council
  • Mitchell, H. (1986) Takaka flood protection scheme.: a loan poll survey report. Nelson,N.Z. : Mitchell Research
  • Mosley, M, Pearson, C, & Pearson, (1997). Floods and Droughts: The New Zealand Experience / Edited for The New Zealand Hydrological Society By M. Paul Mosley, Charles P. Pearson, Wellington, N.Z.: The Society.
  • Munro, I. (1999) Back Then - Threads from Motueka's Past. Motueka, N.Z.: Motueka High School, pp 94-96.
  • Nottage, D A (1991), Takaka Flood Frequency Maps And Newspaper Reports Of Historical Floods. Nelson, N.Z. : Nelson-Marlborough Regional Council.
  • Poole, A. L. (1983).  Catchment control in New Zealand. Wellington, N.Z: Water and Soil Division, Ministry of Works and Development for the National Water and Soil Conservation Organisation
  • Quayle, A, Pointer, M & Challands, N. (1983) The Marlborough - Nelson Bays floods of 8-10 July 1983. Wellington, N.Z. :New Zealand Meteorological Service. Takaka River PMF Study. (1996). Wellington, N.Z.: Works Consultancy Services


2011/ 12 Flood (chronological listing)

Flood events pre-2011 (chronological listing)

  • The Big Flood  [1877] (1959)  Nelson Historical Journal 1(9), p.8
  • Mitchell, David. (1990, August 13). Old man flood swept through 113 years ago. [February 1877]. The Nelson Evening Mail, p.4.
  • Nelson reels under rampaging floods (1970, August 31) The Nelson Evening Mail, p.1; p.2
  • Nelson counts flood loss (1970, Sept 1) The Nelson Evening Mail (supplement); p.1
  • Pemberton, Greg. (1975/1976). Nelson flood control requires extensive modelling. Soil & Water, Dec-Jan 1975/1976  ,pp.5-8.
  • Floods leave region devastated. (1983, July 11). The Nelson Evening Mail. pp. 1-6.
  • Wisniewski, H. (1984) The Marlborough wetlands 1983 style. Soil & Water, 1, p. 4-13
  • After the flood (1983, July 12). The Nelson Evening Mail, pp. 4-5
  • State of emergency again: flooding hits Marlborough and Takaka. (1983, October, 22). The Press, p.1.
  • Rai worst hit in four-day deluge. (1983, December 10). The Nelson Evening Mail, p1, 8.
  • Chaos as storm takes Nelson by surprise: suspect bridge swept away- homes isolated. (1985, January 11). The Nelson Evening Mail, p.1, 3.
  • Moore, Chris & Bill. (1986, January 25). Fear held for Brightwater as province cut off. The Nelson Evening Mail, p.1
  • Flood cost: a life and $1 million. (1986, January 27). The Nelson Evening Mail, pp1,3 + photo page.
  • Golden Bay cut off: Motueka mops up amid devastation. (1990, August 13). The Nelson Evening Mail, p. 1,3, 6.
  • Emergency declared in Motueka (1990 August 13) Nelson Evening Mail p.3
  • Golden Bay cut off (1990, August 13) Nelson Evening Mail, p.1/ Hope residents want flooding solution (1990, August 13) Nelson Evening Mail, p.6
  • Riwaka breaches surprise (1990 August 13) Nelson Evening Mail p. 7
  • Rainfall total tops 100-year high (1990, August 14) Nelson Evening Mail p.3/ Accident victim flown out of Golden Bay (1990, August 14) Nelson Evening Mail p.14
  • Huge flood clean-up confronted (1990 August 15) Nelson Evening Mail p.3
  • Slip fears drive out families (1990, August 15) Nelson Evening Mail  p.1
  • Hope residents want flooding solution (1990, August 16) Nelson Evening Mail  p.6
  • Flood repair bill likely to top 4.4m (1990, August 18) Nelson Evening Mail p. 1
  • Mud pile roars down on house (199o, August 14) Motueka-Golden Bay News, p,1; Flood to remember whatever cause (1990, August 28) Motueka-Golden Bay News, p,1 [download PDF]
  • Drought ends spectacularly (1995, January 27) Nelson Evening Mail p.1
  • Storm fury (1998, March 3)  Nelson Mail , p.1


  • Flood Anniversary issue (2012, December) Live Nelson. [download PDF]


  • Nelson Catchment Board. (1957). Supplement to Floods in New Zealand 1920-53: District Maps, Wellington: Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council.

Video and images 2011/ 12 Flood (chronological listing)

Web Resources

Articles from Papers Past (a selection):

Nelson Floods in the Nelson Photo News