From national park to overseas: Plan to export billions of litres of West Coast water

Mount Aspiring National Park.

Mount Aspiring National Park.

A company has ambitious plans to pipe glacial water from rugged South Westland mountains directly onto tanker ships headed overseas.

Part of a remote West Coast beach would effectively become a water-export facility, with billions of litres of water each year taken from the edge of a national park, down a remote mountainside and onto ships waiting offshore.

The large scale of the Jackson Bay project, which has been in the works for around 25 years and is coming closer to fruition, has raised eyebrows, as has the limited public consultation.

Maps showing the project's planned location.

Maps showing the project's planned location.

Okuru Enterprises, a consortium of West Coast locals, has many of the resource consents needed for the project, including permission to take and export 800,000 tonnes of water – about 800 million litres – each month.

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A hearing next month will decide if the project gets other needed resource consents, including permission to build its storage facility at Neil's Beach.

Renderings of the proposed water export facility at Neil's Beach, near Haast.

Renderings of the proposed water export facility at Neil's Beach, near Haast.

The water would be taken from a dam at Tuning Fork Creek on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, according to the company's consent application.

The water originates in glacial lakes high in the Southern Alps and flows down the braided Arawhata River and into the sea. 

While the water intake is technically outside the national park, a website associated with the project uses the park as a selling point, saying the water originates "from a protected UNESCO World Heritage site".

The wharf at Jacksons Bay, near Haast.

The wharf at Jacksons Bay, near Haast.

It refers to an "unlimited" supply due to the area's high annual rain and snowfall and water purity that is "internationally unsurpassed".

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A 14-hectare "water-export complex" would be constructed on private land at Neil's Beach, a tiny community beneath Mount Aspiring National Park.

Water would be funnelled from the dam down 12 kilometres of mostly underground pipe, which would wind down the mountain across Department of Conservation (DOC) land, the Alpine Fault, and beneath a public road to the export facility.

It would fill up to six large holding tanks, together capable of holding 160 million litres of water, before being pumped through an undersea pipe onto tanker ships anchored about 5.5km off Jackson Bay.

While most of the infrastructure is on private land, the dam and several kilometres of pipe are on the DOC estate.

In the 1990s the department granted the company a concession to build its pipe, which is still valid.

Okuru Enterprises chairman Peter Roselli​ said on Tuesday that the company had paid more than $100,000 for the concession over the years, despite not taking any water.

It had also recently been consulting with DOC, which would consider the project's impacts once all consents had been approved.

Roselli said it had taken many years to get to this point due to the scale of the operation.

There were "quite a number" of groups interested in buying the water, he said.

"It takes a long, long time to get all the consents.

"If indeed all our consents are approved, we can then go back to the interested parties."

He assured people there would be "virtually no environmental impacts" and the water's source was sustainable; a NIWA report dated February 2016 said the project's long-term impact on water levels would be minimal.

The company's application said the project would create between seven and 10 jobs.

Roselli said it would also create export income for New Zealand and be an environmentally-friendly operation.

"The West Coast of the South Island is having a very bad trot, economically. Coal mines are closing down, the cement works have closed down.

"It's world-class water. The world needs pure water and it's getting to the stage where it's going to become very serious in the very near future."

Unlike other New Zealand water exporters or exporter plans, such as the controversial attempt to bottle aquifer water in Ashburton, Roselli said no one else was using this water as it otherwise flowed out to sea.


Concerns have been raised by some Jackson Bay locals, Heritage New Zealand, Forest & Bird and water-conservation advocates.

"This is a community resource that's owned by all New Zealanders, coming out of a national park, and a select few are going to profit from that," said Jen Branje​ of the NZ Water Forum, a group promoting sustainable water use.

"People go to Haast to be decimated by sand flies and see the view, they don't want to see giant ships out in the bay waiting to suck our water away."

She said those who took water should be required to pay for it, with the money used to fund projects such as infrastructure upgrades.

Because of the time taken to get the consents, some had expired and had to be re-approved.

The reapproval of water take consents late last year was not publicly notified by the West Coast Regional Council. 

Consents to build the facility have been limited notified by the Westland District Council, meaning only those asked to submit may do so. This meant advocacy groups have not been able to submit.

Forest & Bird Canterbury West Coast conservation manager Jen Miller said it was concerning such a large project was not publicly notified and the group would be following up.

She said part of the pipeline would run through the conservation estate and through habitat of the Haast brown kiwi, the rarest kiwi sub-species. It has a population of about 400 and is classed as nationally critical by DOC.

The consent application said the company would work with DOC to create a kiwi-protection plan and that it was unlikely any kiwi were at risk.​

Hearings are set to take place in Westland next month.

 - Stuff

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