‘Disingenuous’ hydro consultation criticised

Users of a wild West Coast canyon say a proposed variation to a hydro scheme plan is being rushed through by the Department of Conservation.

The public aren’t getting a say in a plan to change the rules for a proposed hydro scheme on conservation land because the Department of Conservation considers the requested changes to be “nil to minor”.

Worried outdoors and conservation advocates say assessing the changes as “minor” requires rewriting the dictionary. 

The proposed changes will involve clearing native trees from conservation land and will significantly increase the area of land used.

The NZ Canyoning Association was given just five days to submit feedback to a consultation process due to close on Monday, May 25. The Federated Mountain Clubs were informed, but not invited to provide feedback.

The canyoning association is shocked at the lack of information, lack of time, and lack of public notification from DoC and says the process feels “disingenuous”.

“Potentially, it feels as though they're consulting us only so they can say they have consulted once they rubber stamp it and move on,” said association president Dan Clearwater

“The fact they were going to consult with us and not ask for feedback from other interested parties feels like something they’re trying to sweep through quickly, under the rug.”

The Griffin Creek hydro project seeks to take water from one of the country's top canyoning streams to generate 1.3MW of electricity. It’s a run-of-river scheme, which does not involve a dam. It's a small project in terms of output, the declined Waitaha proposal would have generated 16 to 20MW.

It was granted a concession from DoC in 2011 to operate on the public land. Initially the proposed project was small. A slim polythene pipe would zig zag above ground and around larger trees from the water intake at the creek onto private land. 

The company behind it now wants to change the rules of the concession to bury the pipe of undisclosed size on conservation land. 

It also asked for permission to fell larger trees and has proposed the site where the water is taken from the stream is increased from 12 to 100 square metres during construction, then to 75 square metres once construction is complete. The area of the easement will increase from 0.5 ha to 0.6 ha.

DoC's permissions manager Judi Brennan said the company's concession was publicly notified in 2011 when granted. The new changes to the concession had been assessed and public notification was not considered necessary.

“Via this assessment process  ‘it was determined that the difference in effects between what is already authorised and what is being varied were nil to minor and therefore the criteria triggering public notification was not met’. The Department has however sought input from interested stakeholders to help inform the decision on the variation application.”

She said there are only three large podocarps in the area and it is feasible to avoid these trees. Over 95 percent of the large trees affected are kamahi.

Environmental track record

Federated Mountain Clubs president Jan Finlayson.said “If these changes are minor, Griffin Creek Hydro are rewriting the dictionary. It’’s just nonsense.

“How on earth is an increase in size of trees for removal of that magnitude minor? That’s nonsense too.”

The company has asked to increase the size of trees it’s allowed to cut down from 20 to 50 centimetres diameter at breast height. 

Finalyson notes there’s already been a serious breach of concession conditions made by the company involving felling trees. It was allowed to cut a 0.3m wide access track to the site. This was supposed to be a walking path. Instead the company cut a 3 metre wide track.

“Many trees with diameters over 20 centimetres at breast height were cut down,” said Finlayson, who supplied photographs of stumps to DoC. 

She said DoC’s response to the breach was limited. The construction stopped and some remedial work was done but the concession was not terminated.

“To give this company another bite of the cherry is adding insult to injury.”

Left: The access track was supposed to be 0.3m wide but is closer to 3 metres wide. It's now being left to revegetate. Right: One of the trees chopped down for the track with a 40cm high gumboot for scale. The company only has permission to fell trees 20cm in diameter. Photos: Supplied

Scant detail

Beyond the letter from DoC with bullet points of proposed changes there’s a dearth of information about the application.

Clearwater and Finlayson have both asked DoC to supply numerous documents including the application itself, which has not been shared.

In a letter sent to DoC, Finlayson points out it’s not clear how the pipe will be buried. 

“... we assume it would mean trenching, with significant vegetation removal, benching, and sidecasting, all of which would likely affect a large - but as yet unknown/undisclosed - area of old-growth forest.”

If the hydro scheme folds, there’s also no mention of how the pipe would be removed and there’s no geotechnical assessment for a pipe which will cross the Alpine Fault and a number of land slips at the water intake site. 

Newsroom has asked for a copy of the assessment of environmental effects report and was told an Official Information Act request would be required. These requests typically take 20 working days to process. 

Clearwater has submitted an OIA request for all information and asked the deadline for feedback be extended.

Finlayson has suggested an extension to the feedback timeframe and for serious consideration to be given to declining the application, or publicly notifying it.

Top canyoning destination

Last year there was cautious optimism after a different concession variation request by the company - to increase the amount of water it is permitted to take - was withdrawn. 

If this request had been allowed it would have reduced the stream to a “trickle” according to Clearwater.

The sport of canyoning involves traversing canyons by a number of methods. These can include jumps, swims, climbs, abseiling, or scrambling. 

The Griffins Creek canyon was discovered by canyoners after consent for the hydro project had been granted. It’s now considered one of the top canyoning spots in New Zealand and is also used by kayakers.

Clearwater, who has written a guidebook on New Zealand canyoning locations, said this creek attracts international canyoners to the country.

“It’s a really long, sustained canyon with back-to-back features. There’s very little walking, it's just one beautiful waterfall, bedrock gorge, giant pool after another after another.”

One of the key features is the flow of water which goes through it. 

If the hydro project goes ahead the intake would be in the final third of the canyon run. Clearwater had canyoned overseas where this has happened and people tended to stop at the point of an intake valve.

“It can be a trickle and it goes all slimy because there’s not enough water flow to scour out the algae. The lifeblood is taken away.”

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