Raw Power: Interests Clash over Aotearoa’s Whitewater Jewel

Raw Power: Interests Clash over Aotearoa’s Whitewater Jewel

Science by Beth Wishart
Photos by Whitewater NZ

The Waitaha crushes through West Coast boulders like a churning blade. The awa (river) is an iconic, temperamental, visually stunning and ecologically significant part of the taiao (environment), admired by all who have seen it. It is home to threatened species like blue ducks/whio, long-tailed bats, kākā and kea; it is culturally significant for its link to local iwi of the same name; and Morgan’s Gorge – a narrow channel of frothing, pure water – is held as the pinnacle of kayaking and canoeing in Aotearoa.

In short, the Waitaha is “skux as fuck”, as described by Gooch, the gear officer for the Otago University Canoe Club (OUCC). As we move into a green economy, however, the Waitaha’s roaring rapids are attracting attention from outside the global kayaking community. Westpower, a community-owned company on the West Coast, is leading the charge to tap the Waitaha for hydropower, and is currently in the process of pitching a hydro scheme to the government - for the second time. It’s created a microcosm of a debate we see raging globally, where we have to balance maintaining our current standard of living against preserving the few wilderness areas we have left, and it’s pitched kayakers against a power company and the local iwi.

Westpower’s initial pitch was rejected by the government, with Environment Minister David Parker saying the application was declined because establishing the power scheme in this location would have significant impacts on the natural character of the area, the intrinsic value of the area and the people's enjoyment of it. This decision was controversial; on one hand, the scheme could bring jobs to the area and create renewable power, while on the other, it could have major environmental, ecological and cultural impacts. Westpower’s original 2016 pitch was rejected by the government in 2019. On June 1st 2022, Westpower launched a renewed bid asking the government to reconsider the hydro-scheme. “It’s sort of like if your mum says no, then you go ask your dad, that sorta thing,” said one disgruntled kayaker.

Westpower is currently between a rock and a hard place. They have to choose whether to repitch now, against the same government and opposing groups, or wait to see if a new government is elected. Problem is, the land they want to build on is being reclassified by DoC, and could be rendered untouchable by the time a more cooperative government comes along. In the meantime, Westpower and the local iwi are united in their support of the project, mostly because of the security it would provide to nearby communities. The 12,000 homes powerable by this project otherwise risk being cut off from the national energy grid in the event of a natural disaster which, if you know anything about the West Coast, is just an average Tuesday.

Most of the submissions opposing the scheme seemed to come from those with a passion for the outdoors, particularly from keen kayakers, many of whom are at Otago. One submitter explained that “The Morgan George and upper Waitaha River represent the pinnacle of whitewater runs for the most skilled of expert kayakers,” reasoning that this warranted “the river’s statutory recognition and protection, alongside other beginner, intermediate, advanced and expert runs throughout the country; some of which are protected under by Water Conservation Orders”. Another submission, this one in favour of the scheme, dismissed this argument, positing that “the objections from the kayaking community are largely overstated,” because “the extreme water[s] of the Morgan Gorge [have] very rarely been kayaked successfully.” Kayakers argued that this was precisely their point: it’s not the pinnacle because it’s the most explored, it’s the pinnacle because it’s one of the most challenging. 

We went to OUCC to learn a bit more about what the Waitaha was like, and why so many kayakers were passionate about preserving its natural state if they were unequipped to paddle it in the first place. 

Paddling the Waitaha is often compared to climbing Aoraki (Mt. Cook) in regards to the challenge it presents. For this reason, the river is widely known and admired, even if very few have paddled it. Mitch (club health and safety officer) is one of the few who have tackled the river, while Gooch (gear officer) is yet to attempt the intrepid dangers of Morgan’s George. Mitch described that he didn’t oppose the scheme solely for its impact on kayaking, but its wider ecological implications: “There are so many habitants of the Gorge. When we went there, it was the first time I saw blue ducks,” (rarer than kiwi, whio/blue ducks are also endemic to Aotearoa, with only 863 pairs counted in the Department of Conservation's 2021 census). “We saw a family of six of them, just floating around. Damming the george will well and truly scare them away.” 

“I don’t think a power company can see the exact footprint they’ll put on this place - it’ll be so much concrete, the road, the huge pipes,” said Mitch. Gooch added that a dam would even increase noise and light pollution in an otherwise effectively untouched area. “I couldn't think of anything grosser than drying it out,” explained Mitch, “There's a swing bridge that goes over the bush, and walking over that, looking down and seeing the river dry would just be heartbreaking.”

But claims of a “dam” seem to be slightly misguided. Both Francois Tumahai (Chair of Westpower’s Mana Whenua Panel and Chair of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae) and Peter Armstrong (CEO of Westpower) insisted that there was no such “dam” in the works. “The project would see a small weir built,” said Francois, and it “does not require damming a river or creating a storage lake”, according to Peter. That being said, the same language differences (weir vs dam) were seen during the 2019 debate over the original scheme, with Westpower execs insisting on the word “weir”, and David Parker and the media calling it a “dam” nonetheless, as it diverted water out of the river. Peter explained that while his team has tried to make this distinction clear, “Unfortunately, this [difference] appears to have been overlooked in the heat of the debate.” But to the kayakers, be it a dam or a weir, it just wouldn’t be the same Waitaha.

Claims of environmental insensitivity were rebuked by Westpower and Francois. “Our relationship with the whenua will not be affected,” said Francois. Westpower acknowledged that there would be as small an environmental impact as possible, and there would be benefits, too. They cited “improved access to the tramping track to Kiwi Flat (excluding private land), and support toward the blue duck programme” as examples, as well as “information about water levels and a link to a web camera at Kiwi Flat”. Lastly, “up to four no-take-days per year and a contribution towards a training programme have been offered to kayakers,” by Westpower. 

Liam, an avid kayaker, did not think that the no-take days and training were entirely well thought-out. “The four no-takes a year, yeah, that doesn't work,” said Liam. “In an environment like Morgan's Gorge, on the West Coast, in the most unpredictable weather in the country, there's no way you're gonna be able to [align] those no-take days with an actual weekend that's gonna line up with the weather. That's just not logistically possible. You'd need some soothsayers to see into the future, or something.” And as far as the training was concerned, “that’s a logistical nightmare” as well. The drop into Morgan’s Gorge, “the most awesome, unbelievable part of the river”, can currently be achieved by a moderately-able paddler (the second half of the river is far more challenging). But with the proposed weir, and the sluice on top for kayak access, that approach gets much more technical. “It would require a team of people setting safety, possible rope skills, and different management systems… [is Westpower] providing training in hi-tech rope skills and approach skills, along with the $800 rescue course that it costs to become that kind of proficient? They'd have to offer that to any grade 3 paddler in the country, if that's something they wanted to do.” Besides, the mere presence of a weir “would completely destroy all of the recreational and visual value of being able to paddle into this unbelievable gorge”. 

Like Liam, other kayakers persisted in their claims that the awa would be irreparably changed. “It’s a bit gut-wrenching… it feels like I’m missing out on this for some corporate greed or something,” Gooch explained, before going on to elaborate that the scheme doesn't feel necessary enough: “If this one station was gonna power all of New Zealand, and it was gonna reduce the carbon footprint of New Zealand immensely, then I'm sure a lot of people would have different feelings, including me.” 

As an alternative, the kayakers brought up the Lake Onslow battery scheme. The reservoir in Central Otago is currently in the process of being developed to store potential energy: roughly 1,000mw of it, compared to the potential 20mw from the Waitaha. In fact, the energy stored in the Onslow reservoir is so massive that, in theory, the hydro battery could power the entire motu until it ran dry. But Onslow is not a dam, it’s a reservoir that water is pumped into, uphill, when energy is abundant. When it’s lacking, water is released downhill to generate electricity. Hamish Darling, who cut his teeth on the OUCC exec in 2018 before graduating to fill the role of President of Whitewater New Zealand, described his tautoko for the Onslow project. His position is “so super for the Onslow concept. I'm not anti-green energy, but I am pro-protecting wild rivers and pristine West Coast spaces, especially.” Outside of hydroelectric renewable energy, wind farming is another industry on the rise; Hamish explained that there are “currently three proposals for solar wind farms on the Canterbury Plains, all over 100mw, which are closer to West Coast communities [than the Waitaha hydro scheme] anyway”. But transmission lines for that power would still need to be built, and wouldn’t provide the same energy security.

Onslow’s relevance was dismissed by supporters of the Waitaha scheme. “[The Waitaha scheme] is quite different to Onslow,” explained Westpower. Onslow is not “a net producer of energy, but will rather act as a large battery, storing energy when is plentiful and releasing it when it is scarce. New Zealand needs to approximately double the amount of renewable energy it produces over the next 30 years and this will have to come from true generation schemes like the Waitaha.” 

Another claim the kayakers disputed was that the Waitaha scheme would provide local energy to the West Coast, which they said was nonsensical because Aotearoa operates on a nationalised powergrid. It didn’t make sense, to them, to tap a West Coast river only to have that relatively miniscule amount of energy shipped centrally and redistributed. But that wasn’t the point of the claim, according to Francois. He clarified that this local power source would not be needed all the time, but in the event that the West Coast is cut off from national power (in, say, an earthquake), having a hydro scheme in your backyard would be immensely helpful.

Speaking of earthquakes, the West Coast is certainly due for a big one. The Alpine Fault, Earth’s longest terrestrial straight line, is a special one. What makes it special is the consistency, regularity and subsequent predictability of its ruptures, which happen every 300 years or so. The last rupture was in 1717 - you do the maths. A recent Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington) study indicated that there is a 75% chance of the fault rupturing some time in the next 50 years, with 82% probability that multiple sections of the fault line will be involved in a rupture, making it likely a magnitude 8+ event, which sounds like it will define a generation. They expect up to eight metres of horizontal displacement, two metres vertical, and intense shaking, all of which would be felt by the Waitaha, and any new infrastructure Westpower is about to put on it. Westpower, however, was confident that their design was adequate. “The risk of an Alpine Fault rupture has been considered and will be accounted for in the design of Scheme and the way key structures are built. Importantly, none of the civil structures straddle the Alpine Fault, as they are all situated to the east of the fault,” (unlike Franz Josef’s petrol station - unrelated - which sits directly on the fault’s surface trace).

Finally, the kayakers brought up another option: the existing Arnold Hydroelectric Power Station, on a river near Greymouth called the Arnold. The station was commissioned back in 1932 and is rated at 3 megawatts (mw), a measly sum compared to the Waitaha hydro scheme, which would produce a maximum of 20mw of power. Bolstering this project instead of starting a new one was preferable to Mitch. “The Arnold is so gross,” Mitch laughed, “It's got farmland all around it, it's got so much agricultural runoff and sewage runoff, so it's already really polluted. You've already got [another option] just staring you in the face, so why go harm something so pristine?” What Mitch is referring to is Trustpower’s past proposal to build a further structure on the Arnold, a power scheme which would produce a mammoth 46mw. Trustpower was granted approval for this scheme by the government back in 2010, but, after deciding the project was possibly not economically viable, the company let the consents for the scheme lapse in December of 2020.

Now, in 2022, in spite of previous denial and continuous objection, Westpower seeks to have their Waitaha hydro scheme proposal reconsidered by the government. Critics of the scheme have questioned why Westpower is retrying for consents given Aotearoa is still governed by the same Labour government, that the groups that initially opposed the scheme are still vocal and active, that projects like the Onslow station are closer to completion, and that we are ever closer to an earthquake that could alter the entire awa. Supporters of the plan cite the same factors as last time: energy security, encouraging future business, minimal impact, and a willingness to play ball. But it’s still unusual for a scheme like this to be resurrected so soon after being struck down; Hamish reckons the decision to repitch the proposal now is related to local land reclassification processes that are currently underway. 

600,000 hectares of West Coast land, owned by the Department of Conservation, are currently classified as ‘stewardship’ land - stewardship being the least protected of DoC’s four levels of classification. Critic wrote an article about this in issue 14 (2022), but the SparkNotes version is that while DoC is responsible for roughly 8 million hectares of land that is protected for its conservation value, most of this has not been properly assessed for its specific value due to the sheer magnitude of land. Much of the land that DoC was given in 1987 has been tagged ‘stewardship land’ while it waits for further assessment. 

Stewardship land is generally considered the easiest classification of DoC land to be approved to build on, and the Waitaha falls into this category. But the Waitaha area’s classification is being reconsidered. If DoC finds the land to have more conservation value than can be advocated for under the “stewardship” classification, the land will be reclassified into one of three other possible categories. The reclassification and Westpower’s hydro pitch are two distinct, separate issues. However, Hamish wonders if there’s a connection: “if the reclassification goes ahead, it means Westpower can’t just wait for a different government which is pro-development of remote West Coast valleys,” because the land would have more protection. He speculated that Westpower (backed by locals) is trying to get their second chance proposal across the line before DoC’s bureaucracy (backed by paddlers) caught up to them. 

Peter at Westpower dismissed this, and said that the timing was “pure coincidence”, merely “one element in a basket of ongoing legislative changes that we are currently navigating.” He explained that Westpower has been working hard over the last three years to revise their plan, which included “reviewing the legal basis for the decision, consulting with local stakeholders… and further refining the design of the intake to reduce the visual impacts on the landscape as far as possible.”  

Hamish still wasn’t sure. “Yeah, nah,” said Hamish. “It’s a race.”

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2022.
Posted 7:17pm Friday 2nd September 2022 by Kaia Kahurangi Jamieson and Fox Meyer.