There was excitement in spades for backers of the Waimea Community Dam with Friday’s ground-breaking ceremony signalling the start of excavation on the controversial $104.4 million project.
It will take twice as long as initially expected and cost four times as much to construct, but for those who travelled to the Lee Valley site, about 36 kilometres south-east of Nelson, there was a sense of relief and determination to see a successful outcome for the future of Tasman.
The $104 million Waimea Dam project was rubber-stamped in November after a lively six-hour meeting where Tasman district councillors voted 9-5 to proceed.
A joint-venture between Tasman District Council and Waimea Irrigators Ltd, Waimea Water Ltd was responsible for managing the construction, operation and maintenance of the dam.
Contractors on the project were a consortium of Fulton Hogan and Taylors Contracting.
Waimea Irrigators chairman Murray King said the dam project had been “a long and tortuous” project, involving numerous meetings, going through 18 potential sites and more than a few setbacks along the way.
As such, he saw Friday’s occasion – attended by stakeholder representatives as well as Ngāti Koata and Nelson MP Nick Smith – as more of a milestone than a celebration.
“This is not the end – the end is when we’ll have the thing completed on budget, on time, delivering water and securing the needs of the community for the next 100 years.
“Over the years there has been various stop-go measures and times we thought we wouldn’t get anywhere. In the early days when you’d talk to people about storing water, they’d say ‘what a great idea’ – store it when you’ve got plenty and release it when you need it and you benefit everyone – not only the water users, but you also benefit the environment because you’ve got a minimum flow in the river maintained right through those summer months.
“It wasn’t until more recent times, when it came to funding it that the people said ‘that’s a great idea, as long as I don’t have to pay for it’ – I guess that’s part of being in a community – you share things around, everyone benefits and it’s good to see.”
King said the significant dry event at the start of the year had reinforced the need for the dam and had, in some ways, increased public support on the issue.
“We always knew this would happen and that was why we started in the first place, back in 2000/2001, that was exactly the same situation we had, the irony of it all and the frustration we had was we didn’t get it done sooner.”
Waimea Water chief executive Mike Scott said he was delighted to have reached the milestone while recognising the efforts and vision of many people in the last decade to help the dam proceed.
“On the back of last year’s drought, people get it, they understand, and by far the majority of the community are right behind us and supporting and wishing well which is very encouraging.”
Scott said the last two months had involved construction of the access road along with work on river diversion and clearing vegetation in the dam reservoir footprint area.
Excavation would begin on Monday, with work on the right and left hand abutments getting underway and cutting into rock to get ready for the plinth.
Set to be about 53 metres high, 220m long, 6m wide at the crest and constructed of approximately 430,000 cubic metres of rock, the physical dam was scheduled to be completed by October 2021. That would be followed by the filling of the reservoir with the final commissioning due by February 2022.
The geology at the site was identified as one of the major risks for the project and the excavation was expected to give a better understanding of that risk.
Under the design, rock from the site would be used to create the dam and bedrock was also needed.
Coming to Waimea Water from an energy sector background, Scott said the dam project presented a new challenge but one that he was ready for.
“Big projects are all about the same skill sets and what’s key to this project is managing risks. It’s the same processes, the same kind of people … just a different order of magnitude.
“This is particularly exciting for me because I am a resident of Richmond and I have always believed in this project and I’m just absolutely delighted to be home and part of it because it really is a legacy project.”
Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne, who had overseen much of the dam’s journey to date but would step down at this year’s election, said it was a “tremendous privilege” to have been involved in the start and continuation of the project and wished a successful outcome for those who would bring the dam to completion.
“It was a gruelling process … [but] it is fundamentally satisfying to see what is now happening.”