Geyserland: Or, What happened at Taupō

By Robert McLachlan

I don’t know Taupō well. Even though I stop off there from time to time, I’m always on the way to somewhere else. Usually Taupō means making a hot water puddle in the gritty sand followed by a swim in the lake, noticing with bemusement and resignation the traffic, the parasailing, and the hole-in-one game. Sometimes a random, generic motel. But this time the random motel was not at all generic.

Although right on the edge of town, the buildings were scattered far apart. There were typical 1970s “chalets” (i.e., DIY 4 x 2 carpentry), plus a strange assortment of structures from different periods. There was a large industrial warehouse and a deserted 500-seat bar and restaurant. (I later read that big acts like Prince Tui Teka played here in the 1970s.) Around the back there was a “historic” section, several crumbling structures of assorted age, some still occupied. Some looked like rough-sawn board-and-batten construction – original, or faux-heritage? There was a 2 x 3 metre “church”. I’m using quote marks a lot because it was hard to tell what anything was. One cottage had a photograph of Harry Lauder visiting in the 1920s.

It turned out to be the tattered remains of Taupō’s first hotel, The Glen, founded in 1869 by Edward Lofley to cater to the troops of the Armed Constabulary, posted there in the closing years of the New Zealand Wars. Lofley seems to have been a colourful character, but I’ll leave it to you to read up on him, or to watch the TVNZ documentary about the hotel, for we move on now to the Glen’s 1886 reincarnation as Joshua’s Spa Hotel. By the late 19th century the Spa had become one of the country’s premiere attractions, thanks to its many geysers, hot springs, and boiling mudpots. Its most famous sight was the Crow’s Nest Geyser, with its impressive cone (hence the name), size (spouting up to 30 metres), and picturesque location right on the banks of the Waikato.

From the album: Record Pictures of New Zealand, 1920s, New Zealand, by Harry Moult. Te Papa (O.032191)

Geysers at Taupō?

The Spa Geyser Basin once had ten active geysers, now all extinct. Geysers are rare globally. There are just five geyser fields worldwide, at Yellowstone (Wyoming, USA), Dolina Geizerov (Kamchatka, Russia), Taupō Volcanic Zone (New Zealand), El Tatio (Chile), and Iceland. Geysers are rare and, it transpires, fragile. Development has destroyed nearly all of New Zealand’s geysers. A review by Kenneth Barrick, geographer at the University of Alaska, lists 135 former New Zealand geysers, nearly all extinct due to development. There are just five large, reliable geysers left in the sole remaining geyser field at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, and one or two small, unreliable ones elsewhere.

Spa was the first to go. Lake Taupō was dammed in September 1941 to ensure a more reliable supply of water to downstream hydropower stations, and the riverbed permanently lowered. This killed the Crow’s Nest, which was already known to be susceptible to low river levels. Construction of the Wairakei geothermal power station in 1955 completed the job.

Nearby, Wairakei’s Geyser Valley was renamed Wairakei Thermal Valley after all 22 geysers became extinct in 1968 and the hot springs stopped flowing. Waiora Valley, the location of power station, was renamed Bore Valley. Karapiti (‘blow hole’), whose steam plume once guided visitors across the lake, was renamed Craters of the Moon. The drowning of the largest geyser field, at Orakei Korako, which once had 91 geysers including one of the highest in the world, is ‘remembered as one of the greatest environmental losses in the history of New Zealand’.

Geothermal development then paused for a few decades, as New Zealand focussed on a large-scale push into oil and gas. The next power station was completed in 1989. Because of the destruction at Wairakei, a site at Ohaaki with fewer hydrothermal features was chosen, although, ironically, this site had already been significantly degraded by hydro development in 1961. But there was one feature left:

The large Ohaaki Ngawha (boiling pool) with its clear, pale, turquoise-blue water and extensive white sinter terrace was described as “the most handsome pool in the whole thermal area”. When development commenced, the extraction of geothermal fluid made the water level in the Ohaaki Ngawha drop. This caused the partial collapse of the delicate sinter edge and the white silica formations weathered to a dull dirty grey. The sinter terrace is now cracking and has plants growing through it.

Even Whakarewarewa was nearly lost on not one but two separate occasions. The Rotorua Bathhouse (1908) was fortunately built at the opposite end of town, because of the supposedly more therapeutic waters there. Whakarewarewa’s geysers were safe for the time being. But some changes to local hydrothermal behaviour were already evident in the late 19th century, with geysers progressively faltering also in the 1940s. There were still sixteen geysers playing in 1969, but by the mid-80s this was down to four, and even Pōhutu, the largest, most reliable, and most famous geyser in the country, was beginning to weaken.

In 1986 the government revoked the local council’s authority over the geothermal resource, ordered the closure of all 120 bores within 1.5 km of Whakarewarewa, and applied steep royalties to those further away. What happened next will be familiar from other environmental battles:

Many Rotorua geothermal users were slow to adopt voluntary conservation measures because of perceived historic rights and resistance to change. Historically, access to Rotorua’s geothermal heat was essentially free, and use patterns developed into a tradition over a period of decades. The geothermal lifestyle attracted a self-selected group of committed adherents and defenders of the tradition. Even after the Government declared a ‘‘crisis,’’ the well closure was perceived as an unjustified taking of important aspects of Rotorua’s geothermal lifestyle. At the height of frustration, tensions in Rotorua reached near riot status.

Public resistance to the Government’s well-closure program was organized by the ‘‘Rotorua Geothermal Users Association.’’ Despite the friction between the local residents and the Government, there seemed to be mutual agreement on the need to preserve the remaining geysers. Nonetheless, debate raged on the appropriate degree of change, especially regarding domestic heating systems. Rotorua geothermal users cited scientific uncertainty and reminded the Government that Whakarewarewa underwent natural dormant phases, including a major period of decline in the early 1900s. Therefore, they argued that low rainfall rather than geothermal wells might be causing geyser decline.

Barrick concludes that ‘local adherents to the established use become dedicated advocates for the status quo, complete with organized resistance to change, and, ultimately, organized disenchantment with government remedies.’

Following the well closures there was a mixed pattern of partial recovery and continued decline. None of the large extinct geysers have resumed playing.

Despite the logo, you won’t see many geysers on the Thermal Explorer Highway.

Of course, thermal tourism didn’t completely stop with the death of the Spa Geyser Basin, although that was probably a major factor in the sputtering decline of the Spa Hotel. (Every decade or so there is another attempt to revive it along the lines of the ultra-high-end lodge nearby.) You can see an engineered geyser at Wai-o-Tapu and bathe in engineered silica terraces at Wairakei. Even at Spa you can still bathe in natural hot pools at the edge of the Waikato River, recently upgraded (or, as my daughter put it, ‘ruined’) with toilets and a cafe.

So why was I so moved by this tale of environmental destruction? It’s hardly a unique story. The whole of New Zealand has been and continues to be heavily altered, with conservation biology routinely described as a ‘crisis discipline’. The interplay between development, environment, and tourism has been heavily contested for a long time.

I think one factor was that I stumbled on it suddenly and accidentally. The remaining geothermal attractions don’t hide the story but they don’t exactly emphasize it, either. Like many New Zealanders I grew up enjoying hot pools, and I still remember my first visit to Whakarewarewa. (I thought ‘Pohutugeyser’ was one word, like ‘pohutukawa’.) Psychologically, the sudden reveal meant that I wasn’t subjected to the shifting baseline phenomenon, in which a steadily degrading environment progressively and successively becomes the new normal. Geysers were (and still are) part of the New Zealand identity, so to discover that they had been so carelessly discarded was a shock.

Beyond identity and tourism, geyser basins, with their unique geology and their extreme temperatures, chemistry, and dynamics, are home to unique forms of life. The first high temperature bacteria, thermus aquaticus, was discovered at Yellowstone in 1965, and today forms the cornerstone of high-speed DNA sequencing. Numerous such thermophiles from several different kingdoms of life have since been found, some dating back to the origin of life on earth. Nevertheless, as Barrick remarks,

The positive benefits from national heritage status should not be underestimated. The evolving encoding of landscapes that have extraordinary natural history characteristics with importance as part of a nation’s collective ‘‘sense of community’’ has the power to inspire responsibility for enduring resource stewardship. In time, geyser preservation motivations based on national spirit can be transformed through altruism into global public goods held in trust for future generations.

The hot springs of anarchy rose from the depths where there was no solid earth, and burst into the sunlight – a rainbow in their cooling vapours – with a power the rocks could not repress. (Eveyln Waugh, Brideshead Revisited). Photo: Pōhutu geyser, Seamus Kearney

Acknowledgements. This post draws heavily on two articles by Kenneth Barrick, Geyser decline and extinction in New Zealand—energy development impacts and implications for environmental management, Environmental Management39(6), 783-805 (2007) and Environmental review of geyser basins: resources, scarcity, threats, and benefits, Environmental Reviews 18, 209-238 (2010).

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