Wild Waitaha River to be tamed by hydro scheme

The Morgan Gorge along the Waitaha River.
LEE BURT/LEEBURT.COM

The Morgan Gorge along the Waitaha River.

An environmental battle looks set to rage over a hydro-scheme that would tame a ferocious stretch of water known as the "Mt Cook of rivers".

The $100 million scheme would be the West Coast's largest, generating enough electricity to power about 12,000 households.

It is planned for the Waitaha River, one of the country's most spectacular and untamed landscapes.



Its glacial water flows at a furious speed from the Southern Alps, through towering canyons and steep gorges, before spilling into the Tasman Sea.

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Its wild nature has given it an international reputation for whitewater kayaking. 

The raging waters in the Morgan Gorge.
ZAK SHAW PHOTOGRAPHY/SUPPLIED

The raging waters in the Morgan Gorge.

Fewer than a dozen people have successfully paddled the Morgan Gorge, the most challenging part of the river, and no one has traversed its entire length.

It has drawn parallels among kayakers to Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain. 

If approved, the scheme would at times reduce the river's flow by up to 85 per cent, effectively drying it out.

Paul Currant on the first rapid after being dropped off by chopper at the top of the Upper Waitaha River
ZAK SHAW PHOTOGRAPHY/SUPPLIED

Paul Currant on the first rapid after being dropped off by chopper at the top of the Upper Waitaha River

"From a recreational perspective it would essentially shut down the entire resource," said Greymouth-based doctor Justin Venable, one of the few to have paddled the Morgan Gorge.

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"It represents the pinnacle of whitewater sport both nationally and internationally. Essentially you're de-watering the gorge to such a low flow that a predictable level to paddle through the gorge would be unachievable."

The river is almost entirely on conservation land, meaning the scheme needs a concession from the Department of Conservation (DOC).

DOC has approved in principle a 49-year concession for the scheme, but would make its final decision after public submissions, which close at the end of Monday.

The land has "stewardship" status, meaning its conservation values are yet to be determined, giving it less protection than a national park.

Forest & Bird oppose the scheme due to the risk to threatened species such as blue duck, long-tailed bat, kaka and kea, which all live in the area.

There was no "convincing evidence" there were mitigation measures that would protect such species, chief executive Kevin Hague said.

"It is one of, if not the most, spectacular gorges in the country. . .  If this scheme is allowed to proceed this amazing place is effectively lost forever.

"We're certainly disappointed because we hoped they [DOC] would be saying a clear no."

He said the scheme was "unnecessary" as there were many generation projects already consented that were not being used.

The Federated Mountain Club also objected to the plan due to the area's outstanding values, which made it one of the most beautiful areas in the conservation estate.

"It's spoken about as a sort of holy grail. It's almost mythical as a trans-alpine tramping route – coming down through the Morgan Gorge is something that's regarded as very special," vice president Jan Finlayson said.

"This application has already got past a few speed bumps, and in our view it's time it stopped." 

IS IT NECESSARY?

If approved, the scheme would divert water from the river into a 1.5 kilometre tunnel, ending up in a powerhouse below the Morgan Gorge.

It would not require formation of a lake or submergence of land.

Westpower argued in its application that the scheme would make the West Coast "almost self-sufficient" in terms of power generation, as well as secure the region's supply.

While short term demand for energy was slowing, the scheme was intended to be a long term investment spanning several generations.

Opponents say the scheme does not stack up financially and Westpower's optimism about future growth is misplaced.

Since the decline of the coal industry – the primary user of power on the West Coast – several power generation projects had been cancelled due to slowing demand.

Independent energy and legal consultant Tony Baldwin said in a report that the scheme was "not financially viable," and the grounds for Westpower's predicted growth in energy demand "appear to be extremely weak".

He said the concept of energy self sufficiency made no sense, and DOC was obliged to decline the application.

“'Self sufficiency' may have some parochial appeal, but it is not rational, and it is certainly not a sufficient reason to authorise an activity in a conservation area that would impose adverse effects," he said.

Westpower chief executive Rob Caldwell said it would not be appropriate to comment while public submissions were open.

 - Stuff

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