Reflections on Lake Dunstan

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 reflect.

Susan Anderson

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 subject.

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 landscape architecture).

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, Roxburgh.

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
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 1989.
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 narrow."