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Project Aqua all systems go

By Chris Hutching

Friday 16th May 2003

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Meridian chief executive Dr Keith Turner was flanked by a small army of public-relations consultants and helpers as he wheeled five boxes of documents into Environment Canterbury's offices in Christchurch mid-week.

They contained 61 documents comprising the country's biggest resource-consent application for Meridian's $1.2 billion electricity generation Project Aqua on the Waitaki River near Oamaru.

The power crisis has provided a receptive platform for Meridian's plans to take two-thirds of the Waitaki River's 360cu m per second flow and divert it into a canal system with five power stations along its 60km length and also make water available for irrigation. Some property owners stand to gain big increases in value while others may lose if Meridian acquires farms in manner that reduces their economic viability (taking a strip of land rather than an entire farm, for example).

The government has passed special legislation giving Meridian Energy powers to aquire private property and compensate owners as a "requiring authority" under the Resource Management Act (s167(4)). A few entrepreneurs have secured strategic properties and stand to gain from Meridian's acquisition programme.

Owners of the historic Campbell Park estate at Otekaieke, for example, have reached agreement to use the vacant school buildings for accommodation for the work force that will fluctuate between 400 and 700 over six years.

Project Aqua would have the capacity to produce 524MW of electricity and Meridian has been promoting its plans to business groups and the community as a partial solution to the increasing generation demand.

The plan has stirred vigorous debate among suspicious locals about the extent of benefits. Farmers want to ensure the irrigation costs are sustainable and recreational users have debated whether artificial storage lakes should be reserved for passive recreation.

The Green Party came out strongly against the proposal as unsustainable environmentally and advocated alternatives such as wind power. Meridian's environmental-effect assessment report is 4cm thick and covers a range of mitigation measures such as accommodations with Ngai Tahu and building the canals in such a way that fish would be protected. Fish & Game is uneasy about the plan but privately some members say the Waitaki is highly modified already and if hydro generation has to go anywhere it might as well be there.

Meridian is already evaluating submissions from constructors. The Project Aqua Alliance will investigate, plan, design, construct and complete and commission Project Aqua.

Dr Turner said electricity generation was a national issue affecting all New Zealander.

"New Zealand has a dynamic and growing economy but more people, more houses, more industry and more production means more demand for energy. This country needs about 2% more electricity every year to meet increasing demand ­ in effect, an additional 150 megawatts of generating capacity every year. That is like adding a city the size of Dunedin or Hamilton every year."

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