Waitaki Power Station

Engineering Work (eg road, bridge, sawmill, dam)


By the mid 1920s it was clear that the power stations at Lake Coleridge and Waipori would soon not be able to meet the growth in electricity demand. After a period of investigations, a site in the Waitaki River upstream of the town of Kurow was chosen and work started on the construction of the dam and power house in mid 1928. This was the first major dam to be built in the South Island, and the design was undertaken by the Public Works Department under the direction of the Design Engineer, Hydraulic Structures, G P Anderson. Anderson played a large part in the early hydro-electric development in New Zealand.

The site had reasonable foundations but was in a broad valley so the dam had a long length of 522 metres (m) and relatively low height, being a nominal 33 m. The gravity arch dam was constructed without a diversion channel, which posed some problems particularly in the construction of the final (closing) section of the dam. Progress was delayed a number of times when large floods occurred.

As construction proceeded in 1930, a dam design expert from Sweden, Professor Hörnell, visited the site and recommended the installation of a cut off wall and a drainage gallery at the toe of the upstream face of the dam to reduce the possibility of uplift forces on the base of the dam. Some years later, as a further measure to improve the dam stability anchoring cables were drilled from the dam crest down into the foundation rock in the early 1960s.

The site chosen also suffered a difficult climate with strong winds blowing down the valley and bitter cold in the winter making for some very difficult working conditions. Added to this, the construction proceeded through the worst of the Depression years, and this resulted in the demand by the politicians to minimise machine use and maximise man power.

The power house is situated on the right (Otago) bank of the river and was originally designed to have five 15 megawatt (MW) generators (operating on a head of 21 m), although when the station was first opened in October 1934 only two were installed. The remaining three were installed progressively in 1940, 1941 and 1949. With continued growth in demand two further 15 MW units were added in 1954 in an expanded powerhouse to bring the station installed capacity up to its present 105 MW.

Finally, and perhaps as important as the engineering achievements, the project can claim to have been the model from which the Labour government’s national system of free health and hospital services was developed. Certainly, the health system developed on the construction site was largely due to the efforts of the local doc, Dr Gervan McMillan and the local Presbyterian minister, Revd Arnold Nordmeyer, both of whom were to become members of the first Labour government in 1935.

Related IPENZ Record entries
Upper Waitaki Power Development
The New Zealand's Electricity system has an overview of the history of electricity supply in New Zealand from the early 20th century.

'Waitaki Hydro Station,' Meridian Energy (www.meridianenergy.co.nz) 

Natusch, G G, Waitaki dammed – and the Origins of Social Security, Otago Heritage books, 1984

Martin, John E, People. Politics and Power Stations, Internal Affairs, 1991, p 106

Anderson, George P, 'Notes on Design of Waitaki Dam,' Proc. NZ Soc of Civil Engineers, Vol. XXIII, p 95


Waitaki Intro GGN.pdf


Waitaki River, 6 kilometres upstream of Kurow. The Station can be viewed from State Highway 83.

North Otago, Otago, South Canterbury

Access Info
Public access is restricted.

Nature of Engineering
Electrical Power Generation and Distribution


(Click image to enlarge )

Waitaki Power Station, November 2009. Photograph courtesy of R. Aspden

(Click image to enlarge )

Waitaki Hydro-electric station, Otago. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-28158-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23028526

(Click image to enlarge )

Crowd at the Waitaki hydro-electric power station and spillway. New Zealand Railways :Photographs. Ref: 1/1-003835-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22678210

(Click image to enlarge )

Waitaki hydro-electric power works under construction - Photograph taken by J H Christie. Making New Zealand:Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-1798-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23227731

(Click image to enlarge )

Lat: -44.6916 Long: 170.4258