Rachael de Jong was swept to her death on the Waikato River, when the floodgates of the Aratiatia Dam were opened. New safety barriers and warning signs were put in place, but people still swim in the water. The Coroner who investigated her death strongly recommended a swimming ban to explicitly deter people from entering the water, however, the local council says it is powerless to do so. Mercury Energy, which operates the dam, disagrees and has asked the Waikato Regional Council to take action in a bylaw review.

Swimmers continue to risk their lives in a dangerous stretch of water below the Aratiatia Dam despite new safety barriers and warning signs put up after a young woman was swept to her death.

A complete ban on swimming in the Waikato River below the Aratiatia Dam is needed to ram home the risk and help stop another tragedy like the death of Rachael de Jong, says power company Mercury Energy which operates the dam.

In written submissions on a draft bylaw before the Waikato Regional Council, Mercury Energy says the council already has the power to prohibit swimming near hydro dams in the current Navigation Safety Bylaw.

But the bylaw review provides an opportunity to make the swimming ban "explicit", as people are ignoring the warning signs and safety barriers put in place since de Jong's death, according to Mercury Energy's submission.

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"This highlights the need for [a] more clear and specific direction in relation to the application of the hydro dam safety zones, including Aratiatia. It is therefore imperative in our view that this clarity is achieved prior to summer, which is rapidly approaching."

A complete ban on swimming was one of the strong recommendations by Coroner Wallace Bain, who investigated the circumstances leading to the death of de Jong.

The 21-year-old was swimming with six friends about 200m below the Aratiatia Dam, just north of Taupō, on Waitangi Day 2017 when the floodgates opened.

Within minutes, the tranquil water turned into a torrent.

Horrified tourists could do nothing but watch as the physiotherapy student and her friends were trapped on a rock and dived to safety, one by one, as the water rose around them.

Although de Jong scrambled to safety, she put herself back in harm's way to help others and was swept downstream. Her bravery was hailed by the Coroner, and de Jong's selflessness was recognised as the Herald's New Zealander of the Year People's Choice in 2018.

In his inquest findings released in September 2018, Coroner Bain "strongly" recommended Mercury, the Department of Conservation, and the Waikato Regional Council meet to discuss how swimming could be banned, even if a law change was needed.

The Aratiatia Rapids are tranquil until the dam floodgates are opening four times each day. Photo / Mike Scott
The Aratiatia Rapids are tranquil until the dam floodgates are opening four times each day. Photo / Mike Scott

The dam floodgates are opened four times a day in summer for "tourist spills" - filling the rapids for visitors to see in a natural state - which are part of Mercury Energy's resource consent for the power station.

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Sirens warn of the impending release of water, as well as signs in the official Department of Conservation carpark and tracks to the fenced viewing areas.

However, de Jong and her friends parked in a layby on the side of the road and walked down a well-worn, unofficial track to the river.

They would have walked past a warning sign, but it had been stolen two weeks before and not replaced.

Other swimmers had been caught unawares in the river before and more could be done to stop another tragedy, wrote Bain.

"It also seems clear to the court that swimming in the area should be absolutely prohibited and that is simply demonstrated by the interviews [with the survivors]," wrote Bain.

"They are smart, intelligent young people but in essence had no idea of what to expect and on that basis were very much lulled into a false sense of security.

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Rachael de Jong, 21, was swept to her death on the Aratiatia rapids on the Waikato River just north of Taupō on Waitangi Day 2017. Photo / Supplied
Rachael de Jong, 21, was swept to her death on the Aratiatia rapids on the Waikato River just north of Taupō on Waitangi Day 2017. Photo / Supplied

"If the group that were caught on this occasion were not able to sense the imminent danger with all that was then in place, then it is clearly possible that this could happen again, especially as it is a tourist area."

While safety barriers and new warning signs were erected after de Jong's death, the Waikato Regional Council has not taken any steps towards a swimming ban - which her father has labelled a "cop out".

The council disagrees with Mercury's interpretation that it already has the legal power to prohibit swimming within 200m, either side, of any hydro dam structure.

It has taken the view that the clause Mercury refers to was designed to stop swimmers getting near a hydro dam to avoid "conflict" with maintenance vessels.

"As maintenance vessels cannot enter the rapids, we cannot legally extend the swimming ban to include this area. There is presently no agency that has the legal responsibility for controlling swimmers," WRC maritime and farming services manager Nicole Botherway previously told the Herald on Sunday.

"Rachael's tragic death has highlighted how dangerous this area is and we continue to work closely with our partners to increase awareness of the dangers to prevent others swimming in this area."

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Kevin de Jong, pictured above the Aratiatia Rapids on the Waikato River near Taupō, supports Mercury Energy's submissions on a swimming ban. Photo / Alan Gibson
Kevin de Jong, pictured above the Aratiatia Rapids on the Waikato River near Taupō, supports Mercury Energy's submissions on a swimming ban. Photo / Alan Gibson

This has not stopped people from swimming below the dam, Mercury Energy pointed out in its submissions on a new draft bylaw.

Rachael's father, Kevin de Jong, supports Mercury's push for a total ban on swimming below the dam, which he believes is necessary to reinforce to the public just how dangerous the waterway is.

He was frustrated at the inaction so far, but did not want to comment beyond what he had already said.

"It's a cop out and very typical of bureaucrats. This is just rubbish," de Jong previously told the Herald on Sunday.

"How hard can it be? If you can't amend the bylaw, just put an entirely new ban in place. If a council can make a bylaw to make dog owners pick up dog poo, they can ban swimming in a dangerous spot.

Submissions on the draft bylaw closed on Wednesday.

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