Delta dig in doubt

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Runway extension and anti-flood dyke jeopardised.

A river protection order could scuttle a Think Big solution to Queenstown’s critical flooding, airport runway safety and sewerage system problems.

Independent planning commissioners earlier this year heard applications from Otago Regional Council and Queenstown Airport Corporation to gouge up to 1.2 million cubic metres of gravel from the Shotover Delta for vital works.

But Mountain Scene can now reveal the commissioners are flagging legal doubts over whether the big delta dig could destroy scenic, natural and scientific characteristics of the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers protected by a river conservation law.

“The commissioners, by law, have to give regard to that conservation order,” says ORC resource management boss Selva Selvarajah.

If the multi-million dollar “Shotover makeover” is aborted as a result, there could be dire consequences for the resort.

QAC has earmarked 900,000 cubic metres of excavated gravel – 150,000 truckloads – for a 90m-long, 45m-high “runway end safety area” (RESA) out over the Shotover Delta.

Under Civil Aviation Authority rules, the RESA has to be in place for under or over-shooting aircraft by October 2011 – or direct flights from Australia would be banned.

“There is no other practical way of staging that RESA [work] that quickly,” Selvarajah says.

Losing trans-Tasman flights would be “an absolute disaster”, says Destination Queenstown boss Stephen Pahl.

About 45 per cent of visitors come from Australia and DQ is now devoting just over half its budget to that market, he adds.

ORC itself also requires another 30,000cu m of delta gravel to build a three-metre-high dyke across the Shotover River mouth for flood protect­ion.

Queenstown Lakes District Council boss Duncan Field has stated the dyke is vital to reduce the ever-increasing risk of serious flooding in downtown Queenstown.

“It trains the Shotover River to stay on the true left bank during a major flood event.

“This is about preventing things getting worse.”

The last flood, 10 years ago, had cost about $70 million in insurance claims – future losses wouldn’t be that large, due to mitigation measures by CBD landlords, but the river work was “still worth doing”.

QLDC also wants another 70,000cu m of delta spoil – and maybe double that – for its consented $37m sewage-to-land disposal system on the delta, which is currently under appeal.

The gravel isn’t essential for the new sewage plant but would be “an additional cleansing system” for treated effluent, Selvarajah says.

And sourcing it from the delta would be a cost-saving, says Project Shotover manager Martin O’Malley.

QLDC’s present creaky sewerage system, which pours effluent from the delta treatment ponds into the nearby Shotover River, won’t last past 2012.

Its discharge permit also effectively expired last November and there are regular contamination problems – three months ago, partially-treated sewage leaked from a treatment pond onto the nearby riverbank via an overlooked pipeline.

The commissioners’ decision is due out on July 10, Selvarajah says.

Even if they approve the Think Big project, that decision is appealable to the Environment Court then even to the High Court, Selvarajah concedes.