Aratiatia Rapids drowning: Spills on hold

Warning signs at the Aratiatia Bridge.
Warning signs at the Aratiatia Bridge.

They are ranked number two on TripAdvisor's list of things to do in Taupo but tourist water releases from the Aratiatia Dam have been put on hold for the time being.

That follows the drowning of Rachael Louise De Jong, 21, of Auckland, on Waitangi Day.

Rachael De Jong drowned near Taupo on Waitangi Day.
Rachael De Jong drowned near Taupo on Waitangi Day.

She and a group of others were in a pool on the Aratiatia Rapids when the dam gates opened for the scheduled noon release of water. Warning sirens were working and signs were in place.

The dam gates are normally opened four times daily in summer and the rapids are a popular tourist attraction, drawing in excess of a hundred visitors at busy times. They rank only behind Huka Falls on TripAdvisor among Taupo's attractions.

Opening the gates for tourist display purposes and for operational reasons is regulated by hydro-generator Mercury's resource consents.

Mercury, the Waikato Regional Council, the Department of Conservation (DoC) and the Harbourmaster are all undertaking their own safety reviews and no decision will be made on whether tourist spills will resume until those have been completed.

When the dam gates are shut the water flows through the Aratiatia Power Station, which discharges it back into the river at the bottom of the rapids.

The group Ms De Jong was with accessed the rapids from the adjacent DoC reserve.

Sergeant Shane McNally of Taupo police said people had been swimming at the downstream end of the rapids for years and there was an unofficial track down to the rapids which ran off a walking track to one of the viewing platforms. It has since been fenced off, with a warning sign.

In September 2015, two young women were swept off a rock in the rapids, with one being carried all the way down before she made it to safety.

She was one of three young people who had been drinking and decided to stand on a rock while the rapids rose around them. In 2009, two women wading across the rapids were swept away, and rescued by kayakers working with the Yogi Bear movie crew.

Waikato Regional Council bylaws state that the water 200 metres either side of a hydro dam is a prohibited zone for boating, swimming and other water activities. Council chief executive Vaughan Payne has already pledged to look at what can be done better to prevent deaths in future.

Empty: The Aratiatia Rapids tourist spills have been suspended since Rachael De Jong's death on Waitangi Day.
Empty: The Aratiatia Rapids tourist spills have been suspended since Rachael De Jong's death on Waitangi Day.

Dave Kilmister, who owns Huka Falls Cruises and operates from a base at the Aratiatia Dam, said he was aware that some people walked down through the reserve and swam in the pools when the rapids were not flowing, usually in the evening, and said although DoC and Mercury did their best to warn people away, social media played a big part in spreading the word.

"Two days [after the drowning] there were people down there swimming again."

Kilmister said although most of his customers pre-booked cruises, a portion came from foot traffic at the Aratiatia Dam, and he had lost some custom since the spills were suspended.

Destination Great Lake Taupo general manager Damian Coutts said the Aratiatia Rapids were a significant Taupo tourist site which attracted many visitors each day and the closure was leading to a decline in patronage for the other tourism businesses in the vicinity.

"We understand from Mercury that they are committed to reinstating the flow as soon as possible but want to make sure that they have systems and processes in place to minimise the risk of such a fatality occurring again, and we continue to work closely with them on that," Coutts said.

"The conversation we've been having with them is making sure that the messages are as strong as possible about people not swimming there."

Aratiatia Dam operator Mercury said it understood the importance of the Aratiatia Rapids tourist spill to tourism in the region and was committed to resuming them "when it is safe and feasible to do so".

"Mercury is currently undertaking a review of its operations and safety processes relating to the Aratiatia Rapids alongside individual reviews by the Department of Conservation, Waikato Regional Council, Harbourmaster and the Taupo District Council of their own responsibilities. A decision on the timing of the resumption of the spill cannot be made until these reviews are complete."

Tourists at the dam on Tuesday, who had come especially to watch the gates open, were disappointed but mostly philosophical.

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