Mad with power

WILD WATER: Steffan Lamont kayaks Mokihinui River rapids that Meridian will flood to build its hydro scheme.
WILD WATER: Steffan Lamont kayaks Mokihinui River rapids that Meridian will flood to build its hydro scheme.

A pristine part of West Coast wilderness stands to be sacrificed to generate more electricity, but as NAOMI ARNOLD reports, the decision has been met with resignation as much as anger.

In 2008, when Karamea tramper and conservationist Margaret Rich heard about Meridian Energy's proposal to build a dam on the Mokihinui River, she went to the site, stood in the tumbling water and gazed up, trying to visualise a dam the height of a 20-storey building looming above the wild river.

"It was indescribably horrible to imagine what it would look like," Ms Rich said in an interview at the time.

"They talk about renewable energy, but damming an unmodified river and drowning an extensive area of pristine native forest is not energy from a renewable source. What's renewable about destroying the river?"

Two years later, following last week's approval of Meridian's resource consent application, Ms Rich is more measured, and sighs down the phone.

"What can I say? It was a shock," she says of the decision.

Ms Rich's submission was one of 298 against the dam, a densely packed 12 pages arguing that the scheme was too destructive and too big; that smaller hydro developments would be better; that proposed mitigation measures weren't enough; and that the proposal would unnecessarily ruin the river and its wildlife forever.

But Meridian spokesman Alan Seay says the state-owned power company is "delighted, obviously".

The company has now cleared a massive hurdle in its proposal to build the $300 million dam and power station on the Mokihinui, which will involve flooding the gorge to create a skinny, winding, 14-kilometre lake – the largest inundation of public conservation land since Manapouri. The 80-megawatt power station is expected to produce 310 to 360 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, enough to power 45,000 homes. There will be a new transmission line, and more power to feed into the national grid.

Mr Seay says Meridian hasn't decided yet if it will appeal the more than 200 consent conditions, but he isn't aware of "anything in the decision that's making us think along those lines".

They include restrictions on noise and dust, shifting endangered whio (blue duck) and snails to a new predator-controlled area, upgrading historic tracks, and monitoring, trapping and transferring elvers and other native fish.

The consent decision was split. Dr Greg Ryder, the lone ecologist on the three-person panel, believed the dam to be too destructive, while the other two, Christchurch civil engineer John Lumsden and West Coast regional vouncillor Terry Archer, felt the benefits to the Coast outweighed the environmental impacts. Those impacts include loss of sediment transport, loss of wildlife habitat, drowning the river, destroying the gorge's natural character, affecting native fish migration, displacing endangered native snails, destroying blue duck habitat, drowning recreational rapids, and producing carbon dioxide and methane emissions from rotting rainforest.

There was also the question of the dam destroying the river's mauri, or life force, until local iwi Ngati Waewae's objections were withdrawn after the tribe negotiated for Meridian to contribute to a cultural fund.

That particular point sticks in the craw of Rick Barber, a long-time West Coast conservationist who made a submission on behalf of his iwi. The mana of his opposition still stands, he says.

"Any Maori who claims to be a Maori as I am could not [justify] blocking an awa [river] like that."

During site visits, he says many Ngati Waewae people wept at the thought of the river being destroyed. But he's not surprised that economic values trumped cultural ones.

"That's how powers that be have thought throughout history. People think it'll go ahead anyway, so they might as well get out of it what they can."

Despite the environmental objections, few on the West Coast would doubt that a reliable power supply is needed. Some of the biggest users are industry – one of the biggest is Westport's Holcim cement plant, which uses up 50GWh a year.

But the Coast has always had a dodgy power supply. It relies on a lone transmission line winding its way from the southern dams across the spine of the South Island, and as a result it has some of the highest power prices in the country.

Meridian says the new dam will guarantee supply, and having it in the West Coast's backyard means transmission losses will be well down on the 50 per cent loss that can occur at peak times. It should also lessen the occurrence of "unplanned outages".

Meridian's cheery promotional DVD for the Mokihinui project says it hopes that money saved by generating power at the source can be passed on, though it hasn't actually promised Coasters cheaper power.

But that's a widespread belief, Ms Rich says. She was hoping that two other projects on the Coast – the Arnold River scheme being pursued by TrustPower (for a new 46MW powerhouse), plus Hydro Developments Ltd's Stockton Plateau Hydro Project, granted resource consent two years ago – would provide enough power so that the Mokihinui project wouldn't need to go ahead.

The Stockton plan would use polluted water from the Stockton coal mine to turn its turbines, depositing the water offshore. The scheme was widely backed by the Greens, the West Coast Conservation Board, West Coast MPs and Forest and Bird as making the best of a bad situation. But that's under threat. Government-owned Solid Energy has appealed the scheme and is planning its own.

It's the Seddonville residents living a few kilometres from the Mokihinui dam location who will have to deal with noise, dust pollution and heavy trucks for several years should the dam go ahead.

Further downstream, at the river mouth, dairy farmer Brian "Sos" Morgan says residents there are mostly in support of the dam.

Mr Morgan is chairman of the Mokihinui Ratepayers Association. An unreliable power supply is all right for him – he has a generator in his shed. But the situation can't last.

"At the moment, if we have a major earthquake, we don't have any power."

As to what will happen to the Mokihinui dam in an earthquake, Meridian and the appointed commissioners are confident they have that under control.

Mr Morgan has always welcomed the dam "as long as the whitebait can still get up the river" – he has one of the best stands on the Mokihinui. He says the issue hasn't exactly divided the community, with just a bit of graffiti "telling Meridian where to go in four-letter words".

Reporters have been calling him for several years now, and the resource consent process has been a long haul.

"It's a wee bit different for me, being a farmer. It opened the eyes a bit. There's no doubt when you start reading through [the decision], that doesn't come natural to a lot of us guys, reading all that stuff."

He knows the arguments for and against the dam intimately, though the major issue for him is erosion of the beach. The sea has been eating away at Mokihinui's shoreline at the rate of a metre a year for about 50 years.

With the river sediment being trapped behind the dam, the coastal erosion will worsen. Until now the town, with fewer than 40 people, has had to pay to fix the erosion itself. But Meridian will buy the town two-thirds of a sea wall to protect it, so Mr Morgan is satisfied.

"It's pretty hard to get money in a small district."

Having hunted and fished the area his whole life, Mr Morgan is looking at the dam as a positive. He says he's getting older now, and the dam will give him much easier access to the back country.

"There's a whole crowd [the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust] trying to put a track in, there should be better trout fishing and possibly boating, and the town is going to have a nice dam that's going to have natives right down to the edge of it."

Opening up the gorge for others – that's what Buller Mayor Pat McManus is welcoming, as well as the power.

He was firm in 2008, and he's firm now. "We hear a lot of hysteria about the pristine wilderness of the area, but very few New Zealanders can actually get in there to enjoy it," he said back then.

Now, he welcomes the consent approval as another step on the road towards getting more power to the Coast, and more recreation opportunities for his ratepayers and visitors. It was calculated that only about 300 people a year visited the gorge in its natural state.

But Whitewater New Zealand's Tony Ward-Holmes says it is hardly fair to destroy the river for short-term gain.

Mr Ward-Holmes used to be one of those who kayaked the Mokihinui, but he now doubts that anyone will bother.

The river has easily accessible lower-grade rapids, which are unusual on the West Coast. With a dam in place, kayakers will have to paddle 14km across the lake, in unsuitable kayaks, to reach the rapids higher up.

Mr Ward-Holmes says they'll be appealing the decision, but it's one of many they're fighting. He ticks off the rivers.

"Waingawa in the Wairarapa, Matakitaki, Hurunui, Matiri, Mokau, Waimakariri, Waitaha south of Hari Hari, Nevis ... most people these days have no idea what we used to have but don't have now," he says.

"All the big rivers are gone. Eighty per cent of New Zealand's hydro power potential has already been developed. Waikato, Clutha, Waitaki."

But his organisation doesn't have the resources of a big company. Submissions, hearings and appeals cost money and time off work for its volunteers. "It's a lot of donated time and energy and no-one else is doing it."

But this is just round two of the scrap. The three-week countdown for lodging appeals started on Monday, and Mr Ward-Holmes says Whitewater NZ will appeal. The Green Party and Forest and Bird have hinted that they will, too.

The Department of Conservation, which put together a battery of arguments opposing the project – some observers say one of its biggest such efforts – is cagey but says nothing about its position has changed, though it is still considering its response. Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson still has to grant the concessions needed to flood the valley.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the phone in Karamea, Ms Rich flicks idly through a booklet about the new, "dead" lake. She campaigned against Manapouri in the 1960s; now she's campaigning against the Mokihinui. It feels the same.

"But there's not so many people – it's not such an iconic place, and you're not going to get people marching through Christchurch protesting about Mokihinui.

"So in a way, the protest has been left to the locals, and nobody's really listening."

She turns to a picture in the booklet. "There's a thing like a paddle steamer with a little canopy over it, a tourist boat to take people up the new, dammed river." She laughs.

"It just looks bizarre. And on the next page it's got this picture of a wild river with people coming down it in rafts. A river that won't be there any more. So ..." You can hear the shrug in her voice.

Meridian's website video presentation invites viewers to "look into the future" to a stunning new lake, a "sheltered haven" used by locals and visitors alike as a playground, as well as to access to the gorge and back country.

Less than a minute into the video, before it even introduces the river, it focuses on those issues it assumes are most important to Coasters, as fiddle music plays.

"Neither the whitebaiting nor the trout fishing you currently enjoy will be lost through the Mokihinui hydro proposal," says a smooth female voice. "No more two-hour car trips to the nearest lake ... you have a new lake and all its leisure opportunities on your doorstep."

Digital kayakers cross the new lake, and Photoshopped pictures show the waters lapping at the sides of the gorge. It doesn't show a mock-up of the dam itself.

The Nelson Mail