Last week I sat on a three person Waikato Regional Council Committee which considered public submissions on a proposed new Navigation bylaw. Your initial reaction might be this would be a bit of a yawn, but in fact some really gnarly issues had to be decided.
One of these issues was whether it was possible to use the navigation bylaw to ban swimming in the Waikato River downstream of the floodgates of the Aratiatia Dam. When the floodgates are opened there is a high risk of injury or death should anyone be swimming in the river below. Rachael de Jong, 21, was swept to her death on Waitangi Day in 2017 when the floodgates of the Aratiatia Dam were opened.
Last week power company Mercury Energy which operates the dam, Taupō District Council and the Department of Conservation told us that prohibiting swimming at the rapids would help to prevent the loss of more lives and should be included in the bylaw.
All members of the committee agreed strongly that much more needed to be done, but after considering legal advice, we reluctantly decided that the Navigation Safety Bylaw was not the right tool.
We heard that swimming can be banned where it impedes the safe navigation of vessels, but because boats can’t enter the rapids the bylaw can’t be used. It would also make it impossible for harbour masters to enforce the rule.
Instead the committee agreed to seek the backing of regional councillors later this month to join with other agencies to lobby for legislative change to prohibit public swimming in the rapids.
Councillors will also vote on a committee recommendation asking the Department of Conservation to investigate its ability to limit public access via the Conservation Act and for all concerned parties to consider their liabilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
“We agree that swimming in the rapids is unsafe. There are other options that should be explored, such as the Conservation and Health and Safety at Work Acts. But to get legislative change to ban swimming we need to join together to lobby for it,” Chair of the Committee Stu Kneebone said.
“At the end of the day there is nothing you can do to stop a determined person.”
In a separate issue, it was agreed by the committee that the council’s harbourmasters would work with members of the public to carry out safety assessments for swim zones and towing access lanes at Hahei and Whangapoua.
The committee also voted 2-1 against increasing the Whitianga Waterway speed zone from 3 knots to 5 knots.