Clyde dam marks 40 years since construction began

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YVONNE O’HARA
yvonne.ohara@alliedpress.co.nz

Neil Gillespie has spent 39 years – his entire working life – in the electricity generation industry, 26 of those working for Contact Energy and the company’s earlier incarnations, including the New Zealand Electricity Department (NZED).

His career has been closely linked with the Clyde dam.

He is Contact Energy’s hydro project manager for the Clyde dam and is also responsible for its community relations.

One of his roles is to ensure the dam is a “good neighbour”.

The Clyde dam was one of the Robert Muldoon led National Government’s “Think Big” projects.

The Clutha Valley Development project initially proposed five dams to be built on the Clutha and Kawarau rivers, including at Luggate and Queensberry.

If they had gone ahead, the whole Upper Clutha valley would have been vastly different from what it is now.

Reports of the day suggested the Kawarau River would be ponded to the Nevis Bluff, with the whole Upper Clutha valley flooded, and Cromwell, Lowburn, Luggate, Lower Albert Town and Bannockburn inundated.

Mr Gillespie was born in Cromwell and left school at 17 to become a clerk for the NZED in Dunedin in 1978.

“I said at the time I was going home to live in Cromwell and work on the Clyde dam,” Mr Gillespie said.

At that time, construction had just started on the Clyde dam, despite protests from the communities that would be affected and legal challenges in the High Court from landowners who would be displaced or economically disadvantaged by the work.

They said the Government did not have a legal water grant for the Clyde dam, and they won their case.

However, the National government then enacted the Clutha Development (Clyde Dam) Empowering Act 1982, which overturned the court’s decision.

After five years in the Dunedin office, Mr Gillespie moved to Twizel as “clerk in charge” in 1983 and 1984, then shifted back to Clyde in 1985 to do as he said he would do, “work on the dam”, and was involved in construction and administration.

He said by the time he returned to the area, the communities had “been through all the heartaches and protests” and in the main were largely accepting it was happening.

He was at the dam when the government of the day restructured, reorganised and corporatised its departments in 1987, including the NZED, which become Electricity Corporation New Zealand and later Contact Energy and Transpower.

Cromwell had extensive redevelopment as a result of the dam’s construction, including new schools, malls, shopping centres and housing.

“Until I got here I did not pay too much attention [to the extensive arguments about the development], but I had heard about the battles and about the process.

“There were a lot of orchards submerged and people who did not want to shift, who were displaced under the Public Works Act.

“Many people still have the views that they don’t like what happened.

“They look back at what was here and miss it, and they are perfectly valid feelings.”

He was there when the generation plant was installed at the dam in 1989 and, as Lake Dunstan filled, they were commissioned and power was first generated in 1992.

“It took 18 months to fill the lake,” he said.

“I saw the generators being built, like Meccano.”

The Cromwell Gorge’s hillsides needed extensive work, because geologists considered the area needed stabilising, so drainage tunnels were bored and buttressing built.

At its peak there were 1000 people working on the development.

“People came to work here for the job and some people came here for Central Otago’s lifestyle.

“The project had people working here from all walks of life.

“Some have come and gone, and some have never left.”

The dam was officially opened in 1994, after the lake was filled.

“It is a fantastic industry to be a part of and many people stay in the industry for a long time.

“The people here are like one great big family.

“I have seen changes, reorganisations and restructuring – the industry is changing constantly.

“I have seen lots of health and safety changes, a lot of politics and the Resource Management Act was the single biggest game-changer.”

He remembers the effort and hard work required when the company had to renew its resource consents, a process that started in 2003 and finished in 2007, when the Environment Court confirmed the consent conditions for a further 35 years.

“It was a really complex process and took a lot of time and effort. There were lots of conflicting views.

“A lot of people had concerns that needed to be addressed, and some people did not get what they wanted.

“We had conditions we hadn’t had before, from flow requirements and working with fisheries, some of which were pretty significant.”

Mr Gillespie left the company in 2006 to work for Central Otago company Pioneer Generation (now Pioneer Energy), but then Contact offered him a position evaluating options involving building more dams on the Clutha River in 2008.

He had to determine if they might be viable but by 2012, the proposals were deemed to be uneconomic, given the demand for electricity, proposed population growth, the level of enhancement and more efficient use of energy.

“We have a big focus on economics and health and safety, and looking for more efficient and effective ways of doing things,” he said.

“We also respect the fact that water is a resource for everyone and we want to be sustainable going forward – that is really important to us. It is not just about us, but about the generations in the future.

‘We want to have the right balance between that and sustainability.

“We are also building relationships with community and we want to be good neighbours.”

Contact works with Central Otago community groups and is the naming sponsor for annual events the Alexandra Blossom Festival and the Contact Epic bike race around Lake Hawea.