It’s clean and blue-green and it could power half the homes on the West Coast.

But a revamped proposal for a modest hydro scheme on the Waitaha River is still in limbo 14 months after it was filed – possibly blown there by the draught from a revolving door of successive conservation ministers.

Greymouth-based electricity company Westpower and local iwi asked then-minister Kiri Allan in May last year to reconsider the Waitaha project three years after it was controversially declined by Environment Minister David Parker.

The consumer-owned company says it’s made significant changes to the design in consultation with the Department of Conservation but has had no luck persuading Allan or her two successors to take another look at it.

Chief executive Peter Armstrong says his efforts to follow up on the application with the minister’s office have been rebuffed.

“We’ve had letters from them acknowledging receipt of it and when I’ve contacted them with updates and offering to re-engage we just get politely declined.”

The turnover in conservation ministers would not have helped, Armstrong says, but there are strong and urgent reasons the project should be reconsidered.

One is the growing effect of climate change.

“In the four years since this project was declined, the Government’s declared a climate emergency and the goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.”

Armstrong says when the country is going to need all the hydroelectricity it can get, such a well designed project should be a priority.

The Waitaha hydro scheme could power 12,000 homes on the Coast, reduce demand on the national grid and make the region more resilient to storms and earthquakes, Westpower says.

The run-of-the-river project would divert some of the Waitaha above the Morgan Gorge and channel it through a 1.5m tunnel to a powerhouse, returning the water to the river downstream.

By 2019, DoC had granted approval in principle for the lease and concessions the company needed to build the $100 million scheme on conservation land.

But the proposal attracted 3000 submissions, many from Green Party and Forest and Bird supporters and kayakers who said the hydro scheme would spoil one of the few wild, scenic and pristine rivers left on the planet.

The job of making the final decision on Waitaha was delegated to Parker. The conservation minister at the time, Eugenie Sage, was seen as conflicted as a Green Party MP and veteran Forest and Bird campaigner.

In rejecting the hydro scheme, Parker said it would have “significant impacts” on the natural character of the area and undermined the “intrinsic values” that trampers and kayakers experience there.

Environment Minister David Parker. Photo/File

The reaction on the coast was bitter disappointment.

And the decision raised the ire of mana whenua, Poutini Ngāi Tahu, who backed the scheme and had hoped to invest in it.

It triggered the implosion of the region’s conservation board: members with strong conservation credentials appointed by Sage resigned in the face of a boycott by iwi members of the board.

Lingering disappointment

Today, mana whenua say they’re disappointed the Government has still not confirmed it will reconsider a proposal that would benefit the whole West Coast community.

The decision, they say, was wrong and made without any meaningful engagement with Poutini Ngāi Tahu. 

In a letter asking the Government to think again, the two rūnanga chairs, Paul Madgwick (Makaawhio) and Francois Tumahai (Ngāti Waewae), say the minister has a duty to make an informed decision and to consider the interests of the iwi as the law requires.

He failed on both counts, the iwi leaders say.

“The decision deprives Poutini Ngāi Tahu of any ability to recognise its direct interests, noting that it is now a partner with Westpower in relation to this project.”

Westpower says the revamped design of the hydro plant greatly reduces any visual impact for the relatively few trampers and kayakers who visit the area.

But even if concerns remain about natural character or recreation, it says the courts have made it clear that Treaty of Waitangi principles are not to be trumped by those concerns.

On that basis alone it says the project should be reconsidered – but it’s also crucial if such schemes are to help the country achieve targets of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“If you look at the amount of electricity we’re going to need, it’s going to take every project we can muster in every region,” Armstrong says.

“Top Energy in the Far North has its geothermal resource, Manawatu has wind and on the West Coast we have rain and rivers.

“And we don’t need dams to make power from them. We could do this [hydro] in many places in our region.”

DoC says Westpower’s application hasn’t been forgotten.

Its regulatory services director, Steve Taylor, says previous minister Poto Williams made preliminary decisions about the application last November.

“The department is preparing advice for Minister [Willow Jean] Prime to assist her in deciding whether to agree to undertake the reconsideration.”

Prime’s office confirms the issue is still live.

“The most recent update the office has received was in June … no decisions have been made as yet.”

Power plays

National Party environment spokesperson Scott Simpson says the lack of progress on the Waitaha hydro proposal is unsurprising.

“The Government seems unable to come to a decision. It’s talked a big game on climate action but actually done very little.”

National’s “Electrify New Zealand” policy would make it easier to gain consent for renewable electricity projects, Simpson says.

So would a National-led government, if elected in October, reconsider the Waitaha project? 

“We’d certainly give it consideration as a priority,” Simpson says.

Act’s environment and energy spokesperson Simon Court is less equivocal.

Act’s Simon Court says the Government should be backing Waitaha-like schemes. Photo/File

“It should certainly get another go. Small hydro schemes like this should be going ahead, especially in regions like the West Coast that are prone to natural disasters.”

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters takes a similar view.

The Waitaha is the sort of energy project the Government should be backing, not blocking, he says.

“People go on about wind power but the costs are rocketing compared to hydro schemes like this – it’s a sensible use of a natural resource and one we’d support.”

The Greens remain implacably opposed, saying the wild Waitaha is too precious to be altered.

There are 10 existing hydro schemes in the Westpower region, three of which can continue to supply power during outages.

The company’s Amethyst Hydro – also on conservation land – can power the South Westland area on its own and the privately owned Fox Hydro Scheme can power the Fox Glacier area.

If the Waitaha hydro scheme goes ahead, locally generated power together with the Amethyst would be sufficient to run all of South Westland, Hokitika and Greymouth, Westpower says.

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

Lois Williams joins Newsroom after more than three decades as a senior Radio New Zealand journalist and more recently as a Local Democracy reporter on the West Coast.

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