In light of Contact Energy's recent announcement it is set
to begin public discussions on further hydro-electric
development on the Clutha River, Shane Gilchrist canvasses
opinion on Lake Dunstan and discovers the body of water
created by the Clyde dam is one on which many care to
Susan Anderson was just 6 years old in 1993, when Lake
Dunstan was completely filled. Sixteen years later, her words
on the Clyde dam and the body of water it created are but a
few when compared to the flow of discussion surrounding the
Yet the observations of the Victoria University student are
significant, representing a swirl of opinion as mixed as the
confluence of the Clutha and Kawarau rivers at Cromwell.
In fact, Ms Anderson was criticised by her university
supervisors for "sitting on the fence" in her final-year
project for a bachelor of design degree (majoring in
On one hand, the Clyde dam destroyed a rugged gorge, sealing
homes, orchards and history beneath 60m of water; on the
other, a benign lake is utilised by locals, holiday-makers,
irrigators and, of course, Contact Energy, the company that
generates hydro-electricity at Clyde and, downstream,
Ms Anderson grew up in Twizel. Her parents are from Alexandra
and Clyde, likewise her grandparents. Though she has long had
a fascination with hydro-power, her thesis deals largely with
landscape issues, aesthetic value, the "form" of land
following large-scale human intervention.
Ms Anderson likens the Clyde dam - and our perceptions of it
- to a raw wound that has formed a scab and is healing. The
resultant scar, Lake Dunstan, now stretches for 26sq km.
Kevin Jackson's family-run orchard is about a kilometre west
of Cromwell along State Highway 6. The prospect of rising
waters forced Mr Jackson to move to his present location in
Twenty years earlier, at the age of 27, he'd shifted from
Alexandra to an established orchard in the Cromwell Gorge;
it's a place which he describes with much fondness.
The last orchardist to leave the gorge, Mr Jackson rues the
loss of a "unique microclimate" which enabled him to get
apricots to market a crucial 10 to 14 days before those who
grew the fruit elsewhere in the district.
"I was only there seven years when the various hydro schemes
were announced. I was shell-shocked . . . that caused a lot
of anxiety." As plans for the Clyde dam firmed, Mr Jackson
began looking at land elsewhere, from the Cardrona Valley to
Millers Flat, evaluating crucial factors including soil type,
location, proximity to townships (for a potential workforce)
and a main highway (for roadside business). Utilising a
mixture of "local knowledge, gossip and advice", he chose his
current 30ha property, which he has since expanded to 40ha.
"It had to be the best piece of land in the district. When I
set foot on it, a magic feeling came over me. I wouldn't say
it is better than the Cromwell Gorge land, but it's the same
soil type. However, I was starting afresh. It was very
emotional having to move."
Though he doesn't miss the winters in the gorge ("It was
probably the most miserable place in New Zealand. On the
shortest day we had one hour's sunshine . . ."), he does rue
the loss of a landscape: "The river from Clyde to Wanaka was,
in my opinion, unique. Now that has been destroyed. The
rapids at Cromwell were a landmark.
"If the Cromwell Gorge still existed, if there was no dam, it
would have been one of the best tourist attractions in New
Zealand. It had a rugged river; the water was pure; the gorge
would have been fully developed into fruit . . .
"From the day it was announced that there were going to be
dams on the Clutha, there was no further development in the
Cromwell Gorge. When I moved into the gorge, it was only 30%
developed in orcharding; there was a railway line through it
and a road that no-one liked driving on because it was too