Environment battle heats up at hearing into proposed hydro scheme for West Coast river

The Waitaha River on the West Coast.
Zak Shaw

The Waitaha River on the West Coast.

An environmental battle is raging over a hydroelectric 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 between Harihari and Ross. 

The Department of Conservation (DOC) has approved in principle a 49-year concession for the scheme.

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

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

DOC received 3264* submissions and will make its final decision after a public hearing which will finish on Thursday. 

Forest and Bird's general counsel Peter Anderson told the hearing the scheme would damage vital habitat for endangered birds, fish and lizards. 

"There are 10 threatened bird species in the application footprint including the critically endangered grey duck, nationally endangered kea and the nationally vulnerable kaka and falcon...Fish species within the footprint include three at risk species."

"The major impact on the aquatic ecology would appear to be the diversion of 23 cumecs of river immediately upstream of the Morgan Gorge reducing the river flow for up to 1.6km," he said.

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The long term impacts included loss of in-stream habitat, fish stranding and displacement and vegetation loss. 

"What is currently an outstanding and dynamic wild river is being proposed to become highly modified with a loss of natural values, for at least as long as the life of the proposed scheme with no assurance about the long term protection of species that are already highly vulnerable and at risk of extinction," he said. 

Westland mayor Bruce Smith told the hearing he was in favour of the scheme. 

"Westpower Ltd is a 100 per cent community owned company, meaning that all benefits will accrue to the Westland community. The scheme will improve the economic well being of the Westland District and West Coast region by increasing employment and economic activity," he said. 

He said the run-of-the-river scheme meant the river would not be dammed and the powerhouse would be on stewardship land which was not considered to have significant environmental value.

"I have spent some time visiting schools in recent months setting out for the children the hope that we have for the future the fact that the Coast is growing is a fantastic place to live and the future is bright. It will be a lot brighter if we get this project moving."

He said Forest and Bird had attempted to hijack the hearing.

"They represent the latte brigade from Auckland and should clean up the mess in their own back yard before poking their noses into the affairs of the Coast. Despite 150 years of coal mining, timber extraction and power generation the Coast environment is in great shape and it's the power from the South that feeds the coffee machines in Ponsonby."

He said only about 20 "elitist" kayakers had taken on the Morgan gorge over the last 20 years. 

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.

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

Doug Rankin of Whitewater NZ said he represented more than 1000 kayak and canoe club members. 

"The Morgan Gorge and the upper Waitaha River runs represent the pinnacle of white water runs for the most skilled of expert kayakers. The Waitaha River is an outstanding wild and scenic river, with outstanding natural beauty, scenery and wilderness values and outstanding kayaking values."

"The loss of the natural flows down the Morgan Gorge would completely alter the dynamic of a river trip down an intact and currently undeveloped wild and scenic river and remove the opportunity for kayakers to descend the river free from the encumbrances of dealing with industrial infrastructure," he said. 

He said the significant adverse effects could not be effectively remedied or mitigated.

"In practical terms it does not make sense to sacrifice a nationally important wild and scenic river for the sake of a limited amount of power generation."

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. Its submission will be heard on Thursday. 

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that DOC had received 4544 submissions.

 - Stuff

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