A scenic wonderland or “a few dirty pools”? The destruction of “Geyserland”

In her recent report exploring the in the way choices between generating hydroelectricity and preserving wild and scenic rivers are made, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment highlights the case of the Ohakuri Dam, which was built on the Waikato River in 1961. This was the site of the spectacular Orakei Korako geothermal area, known as “Geyserland”. The lake created for the power station submerged most of the geothermal area, destroying 200 hot springs, several silica terraces and 70 geysers, including the world’s second largest geyser. This geyser was known as Minginui, and its “fountain” reached heights of 90 metres. The scheme also destroyed wahi tapu (sacred sites of Maori), and forced Ngati Tahu (a North Island tribe) to relocate their marae.

Today, this would seem to many of us as a huge price to pay for a dam that would only satisfy a modest portion of our electricity needs (its capacity is for 112 MWs). Any such proposal would likely lead to an eruption of impassioned protest from a broad spectrum of society (and indeed, it would be unlikely to be proposed in the first place). However, at the time, the project triggered only a muted response. This can be explained in part by the widely held view that the project was justified given the serious electricity shortages plaguing the country after World War II. Perhaps more critically however, there were no laws at this time requiring public participation or consultation. The Official Information Act – something we take for granted today – was not introduced until 1982, so it is likely that the public were not even aware of the full implications of the project.

This meant that, at a tourism conference in 1959, an Electricity Department official was able to claim that only “a few dirty pools and gurgling geysers” would be lost, with little fear of contradiction. Despite this imbalance of power, some, like ecologist John Salmon, did have the courage to challenge such thinking, asserting that such schemes as “state-sponsored vandalism”.

This relatively recent historical example demonstrates that while many of us may not always be satisfied by the outcomes of decisions affecting the environment today, we do have now a genuinely participative process for opposing views to be taken into consideration (albeit imperfect) – with all views considered on their merits, rather than the relative power of the party putting forward the view.

Photo top: Orakei Korako (Geyserland), ca 1930. Photograph taken by Whites Aviation. Not to reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID: WA-62646-G. Above right: Ohakuri Dam.

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