At the time of European settlement in the mid-1800s, the low-lying South Dunedin area known then as ‘The Flat’ was generally a marshy environment, covered with silver tussock, rushes and flax. Along the harbour margin was a wide, tidal mud-flat, and there were coastal lagoons and wide, low sand dunes, much flatter than those along the St Clair coast today.
Strong demand for level, dry land in Dunedin in the mid to-late-1800s drove European settlers to embark on reclamation. Much of South Dunedin is land reclaimed from Otago Harbour. Reclamation continued for many years and was not officially completed until the opening of Portsmouth Drive, which runs along the route of the 1912 causeway at the harbour edge, in 1978.
The mixture of sand and silt that still underlies South Dunedin absorbs water from rainfall, and this underground water usually sits just half a metre from the ground surface. The groundwater table is dynamic, rising and falling with tides and seasonal conditions. It soaks up rainfall and surface runoff like a sponge, and transports this water towards the sea.
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