A decision on whether the Department of Conservation will allow the Waitaha River power scheme will be made by mid-2017.
The legality of Westpower's controversial bid to construct a hydro-scheme in the Waitaha River was questioned by opposing groups during the final day of hearings yesterday.
Forest and Bird and Whitewater NZ, two main submitters to the four-day hearing of the application in Hokitika by the Department of Conservation and West Coast Conservation Board, have challenged whether the proposal fits with the Conservation Act.
However, in closing, Westpower maintained that the Waitaha River scheme provided the best balance between renewable power generation and minimal conservation effects.
The scheme is estimated to cost between $80 million and $100 million. Being 100 per cent community-owned, any profits would be passed to the community by way of rebates.
Forest and Bird told the hearing panel on Wednesday the Waitaha River was conservation land, held for conservation purposes - not commercial use.
"The Westpower scheme appears to be another example of DOC acting contrary to its statutory obligations and placing commercial uses above conservation. The number of submissions received in this case demonstrates the depth of opposition to this approach."
The department has approved in principle the application for a concession for a run-of-the-river scheme that does not involve damming the river. A 2km access road, power house an tunnel will be built as well as a weir and diversion structure at the upstream end of the Morgan Gorge, regarded by kayakers as the "Mt Cook" of whitewater runs.
The hydro scheme was initially opposed by kayakers but bolstered by Forest and Bird.
Of the 3264 submissions received, 2864 are Forest and Bird template submissions.
In its reply yesterday, Westpower acknowledged the effects on kayaking the Morgan Gorge and the river as a whole due to the modified flow between the top of the gorge and the powerhouse tailrace.
However, options for mitigation included agreeing times to provide natural flows in and below the gorge.
Counsel for Westpower, Paul Radich, said the scheme would achieve a range of positive environmental and economic effects for the community in general.
"It gives rise to very few environmental effects and those that do arise are able to be mitigated adequately.
"When looking at the Conservation Act ... which requires an assessment of the nature of the activity and its effects, is that the positive effects of the proposal - the benefits it brings - outweigh any other effects."
The scheme, which will have a peak output of between 16MW and 20MW, would provide renewable electricity for the benefit of the region's consumers and security of supply.
Five outages were reported in a two month period in 2006 which caused losses of about $350,000 to 32 businesses.
Up to $70m would also be spent in Westland on construction of the project and 20 full-time equivalent jobs created.
In its legal submission, Forest and Bird said the scheme would impact the natural character of the upper Waitaha, including the Morgan Gorge - a premier, difficult whitewater run - and the ecological values of bats, lizards, whio and fish in the area.
It said there were reasonable alternatives that were not on conservation land, including already consented projects and alternative technologies.
Hari Hari residents Kath and Dan Lane, believed the hearing could have future ramifications for DOC's role in stewardship lands and there were suggestions by them and others that the area be not only protected, but made into a National Park.
Speaking on behalf of the Te Whare o te Kaitiaki Ngahere Society, the Lanes also said the development would go against the core of the Conservation Act.
"Allowing commercial companies to industrialise public estate should be done minimally and not in areas with such high conservation values as the Waitaha - as pristine and as stunningly beautiful as the Morgan Gorge. It is an amazing place to behold - a gorge that has been gouged out over many thousands of years - interesting rock formation; unspoilt native bush; rare wildlife and untainted turquoise glacial water. Wild places do not get any better than this."
Apart from the "amazing untouched grandeur" and self sustaining whio population, there were hot springs in the Morgan Gorge and bathers' lives could be in danger should the weir open, they said.
- Hokitika Guardian