How to build a world class play-wave

Tony Ward-Holmes provides a history lesson on the creation of the Hawea playwave. A slightly different version was originally published in NZ Canoeing 13.1, p8-10.

Building a play-wave seems easy at first thought. You need some water for a start, and some gradient to make that water flow. To shape a wave you need a ramp or a constriction to speed up the water, preferably both. An eddy or two are needed too… a one-shot wave isn’t much use… and Bob’s your uncle, right?

Well, not quite right in many cases. Where does that water come from? Unfortunately rivers with lots of water and gradient are the best rivers for hydro-power, so many of the best river sections are already drowned or de-watered along with some fantastic natural play-waves. Most paddlers weren’t even born when that whitewater was taken from them.

Hawea Bottom Wave 80 cu.

Imagine the Wairoa flowing every day. Or Rainbow Reach on the Waikato… a multi-day section of grade 4 big-water, like a dozen Chinese Doglegs, flowing past geyser fields and silica terraces. Along with the Grand Canyon and the Zambezi this was one of the wonders of the kayaking world, but nobody knew that in the 1950s when it was drowned. How good would the Tongariro and the Whakapapas be with year-round natural flows, different every run? The Waitaki rivers… Tekapo and Pukaki… scenic, but no big deal - right? Wrong. They’re a shadow of their former selves as their biggest boulders were taken out and used in construction, and the Ohau was better than either of them. As for the lower Waitaki gorges… they contained rapids that made Nevis Bluff look small. In the Clutha catchment Molyneaux Falls, Golden Falls and Doctors Falls 1 and 2 vanished under Lake Roxburgh in 1956.. with an average flow of 600 cumecs these had the biggest water in the country. The Clyde dam followed in 1992, drowning The Gap, Bannockburn and the mighty Sargood’s Weir under Lake Dunstan.

Oops, this is turning into an elegy. So let’s move on; to the brand new Hawea play-wave. Designed by Scott Shipley, paid for by Contact Energy, but how did it happen? Believe it or not one of the first key events was in Stockholm, where in 1972 the UN held a conference on Environment and Development. Subsequently, the OECD audited each member country’s environmental management, including New Zealand in 1980 for which we received a need-to-improve rating. In response in 1988, the new Labour Government began work on an integrated resource management statute. In 1991 this was then passed by the next, National government. 78 previous statutes and regulations were repealed and numerous others modified in this ground-breaking regulation. The concept of sustainable management underpins the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) and includes (amongst many points) providing for people’s social, economic and cultural wellbeing; avoiding, remedying or mitigating any adverse effects on the environment; and maintenance and enhancement of amenity values.

Historically, under earlier legislation than the RMA, some adverse effects had been mitigated, e.g. releases were negotiated on the Wairoa, Tekapo and Pukaki. In the case of the Clyde Dam, the Planning Tribunal refused the water permits, so in the spirit of “Think Big” the Government bypassed the laws of New Zealand and passed the Clutha Development (Clyde Dam) Empowering Act 1982 in order to authorise its construction. No mitigation for loss of whitewater recreation was provided. All water permits expire and require renewal under the RMA however. So in the case of Central Otago, in March 2001 Contact Energy applied for consent to continue operating the Hawea, Clyde, and Roxburgh dams, and that’s where building the Hawea wave really started.

  • Otago Canoe and Kayak Club (OCKC), Whitewater NZ (then known as the NZRCA) & Central Otago Whitewater (COW) opposed the Clutha consents and made submissions at the Otago Regional Council (ORC) hearings between October 2002 and February 2003.
  • As seems to happen far too often, the consents were approved with minimal mitigation for kayakers, so Whitewater NZ & COW appealed the ORC decision to the Environment Court.
  • Evidence for court was prepared by Maree Baker-Galloway, Mick Hopkinson and Jon Hunt. Contact Energy then entered into a lengthy negotiation process prior to court action. Agreement for a mitigation project on the Hawea was reached in March 2004.
  • COW obtained the various resource consents (10) for the Hawea project from ORC and Queenstown lakes district Council, a management agreement with DOC in respect of the car parking area, LINZ consent in respect of the riverbed and an easement agreement with the neighbour for the driveway to the car park. The last of those consents were granted in November 2009.
  • Contact Energy obtained a variation of the ORC consent last year extending the construction period enabling the project work to commence on 1 October 2012
  • Maree Baker-Galloway, Roy Bailey and Gordy Raynor were the most involved in the original submissions to the ORC and the work leading to the Contact agreement. Gordy’s firm Checketts McKay law limited did all of the resource consent work and subsequent agreements enabling the project to commence. During the construction phase Roy Bailey represented COW looking after designer Scott Shipley. Scott was 3x World Cup Slalom Champion, World Freestyle Champs’ Silver Medallist and designed the London Olympic slalom course. He and Gordy liaised with Contact Energy regarding the many issues that arose.

So there you go, some ground-breaking legislation, national and local volunteers willing to fight for kayakers even as far as court, strong local community, a sympathetic power company willing to take a chance, reaching out to the best in the world for design, and the result is an amazing community amenity enjoyed not only by kayakers but also boogie boarders, surfers, SUP boarders, swimmers, and families just picnicking by the river. It still isn’t a patch on what has been drowned, but along with the Tongariro and Whakapapa releases, it is the most significant mitigation yet achieved by kayakers under the RMA.

A small aside here… the original RMA legislation was created by successive governments in broad agreement on the concepts, mostly by Sir Geoff Palmer for Labour and then Simon Upton for National. The current government however is unilaterally planning major amendments to water down environmental and amenity protections, in the guise of simplifying and streamlining the RMA. In fact the proposals would do the opposite as 20 years of case-law would be out the window, not to mention undermining every regional plan in the country, resulting in legal chaos. The Hawea wave would probably not have been possible under the new proposals. Anyone with an interest in RMA outcomes, and that includes anyone that enjoys the likes of the Hawea play-wave, should keep up with these proposals and consider what they can do to help. This may include support for advocacy organisations like Whitewater NZ or Forest & Bird, writing to their MP, letters to newspapers, and if necessary acting at the voting booth.

Anyway, you may ask, how is the wave? I’d say “Awesome, the best play-wave in the South Island.”

In fact there are two, with different height drops to suit different tastes and flows. Both really start to work from about 50 cumecs upwards, below that is either uncomfortably shallow at the top hole or you need an unfashionable long boat in the bottom wave.

There will be an official opening event on 10 March in conjunction with the National Freestyle Championships, everyone very welcome, keep an eye out for details of what’s on.

Check flows out @ orc: