Hunua Ranges Water Supply Rolled Earth Dams

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


Water supply from Auckland's Hunua Ranges has been important to the growth of New Zealand's largest city since the mid-20th century. Rolled earth dam design in New Zealand was signficantly advanced by the dams constructed in the Hunua Ranges between 1950 and 1977.

Development of Auckland's bulk water supply
The development of the bulk water supply system for Auckland began with storage, pumping, transmission and water treatment facilities constructed in the Waitakere Ranges.

This phase of the development ended with the construction of the first rolled-fill dam in New Zealand, the Lower Nihotupu Dam.  Designed and supervised by Cyril Firth, this dam, and the construction and testing techniques developed during its construction, was  the forerunner of the sequence of dams built in the Hunua Ranges under the supervision of Firth during his tenure as Chief Engineer Water with the Auckland City Council.

Related IPENZ Records:
Lower Nihotupu Dam
Waitakere Ranges Water Supply System

The need for the continuous development of storage facilities in the Hunua –Wharekawa Ranges was a direct result of the growth of Auckland City and the resulting projections of water demand. To carry out the long term plan, a Water Supply Division within the City’s Department of Works and Services was established and managed by Firth.  This efficient and well-integrated unit continued its work until 1965, when the entire fixed bulk assets of the City were handed over to the Auckland Regional Authority (established 1960).

Development of the Hunua catchments continued until the 1980s, when further investigations of options for the supply of bulk water to Auckland’s ever-increasing population included a scheme for drawing water from the Waikato River. This idea had been proposed much earlier, in the 1940s, by Arthur Mead, then Chief Engineer Water for the City, and was put into practice when it became clear that alternatives, such as further dam building in the Hunua and Waitakere Ranges were limited in their ability to sustain the supply to the City. Dam building ceased with the development of the Waikato River Supply Scheme.

Hunua Ranges catchment rolled earth dams
Development of the catchments in the Hunua Ranges commenced in 1946. The selection of dam site locations and the associated catchment capacities were significantly influenced by the characteristics of the geology in the area.

The catchment reserves are situated more or less in the centre of the Hunua-Warekawa District, with its distinctive north-northwest trending Wairoa Fault. This fault divides the upland into two main blocks – the Bombay-Hunua block on the western and downthrow side of the Fault and the Hunua-Warekawa block on the eastern upthrow side. The Hunua Hills are drained by the Wairoa River and its tributary, Cosseys Creek, and the Wharekawa Hills by the Mangatangi and Mangatawhiri Streams. These latter streams drain independently to the Waikato River, while the Wairoa River flows south at first and then turns north and flows along the front of the fault to Clevedon where it drains into tidal waters from the Firth of Thames. In so doing the Wairoa has formed a spectacular gorge across the end of the hills near Ardmore.

All the dam sites and associated reservoirs are located to allow for gravity feed to the Ardmore Filter Station.

The Hunua Ranges dams are the:

Tunnelling works
All of the dams of the Hunua Ranges catchments relied for their operation on a series of tunnels through each of the ridges within the area for the conveyance of bulk water to the new Filter Station at Clevedon. Most of these tunnels were constructed by gangs employed directly by the Auckland City Council Waterworks Department during its existence, and a considerable specialised expertise grew out of this work.

Timing of construction ensured that progressive discharge of bulk water from the dams as they were built was possible, culminating in the connection of the Mangatangi Dam in 1977 as the last dam to be completed in the second stage of catchment development in the Hunuas.

Engineering importance
Taken as a whole, this programme of dam building represents a remarkable achievement in the history of civil engineering in New Zealand. 

The adoption of rolled earth techniques for the dam building was an innovative approach, requiring at its outset the import and use of specialised earth-moving machinery never before used in the country. Dam design involving state-of-the-art soil testing and analysis, and use of the University of Auckland Engineering Faculty and its specialists for model testing of hydraulic structures, together with field work during construction, provided opportunities for engineering students like no other in the country before, on this method of dam building.

The variety of geological and foundation conditions produced technical challenges in the design and construction of the works which required innovation, excellent management, and a high level of workmanship, all of which was provided to bring about successful completion.

The planning of the overall scheme in response to the projected demands for bulk water with the growth of Auckland City, meant that a secure supply for the benefit of the people was ensured during the years of its development. Experience gained by contractors in the use of heavy machinery, and construction management for this type of work was clearly invaluable for ongoing projects. The foundation was laid for the continued expansion of Auckland’s Bulk Water Supply with the advent of the Waikato River Scheme.

The overall scheme of dam building in the Hunua Ranges is an outstanding example of a cost-effective, timely, well engineered, environmentally sound, and publically beneficial civil engineering project which, as a whole, deserves a status as one of the best examples of sound civil engineering and planning in New Zealand.

'Water Supply Headworks,' Auckland Regional Council leaflet.

CW Firth, 'A Century of Water Supply for Auckland , New Zealand,' Auckland Regional Authority (December 1967).

CW Firth, 'The Auckland Water Supply System,' New Zealand Engineering 12:9 (1957), 292-306. See attachment below.

GJ Murdoch, 'The Water Supply of Metropolitan Auckland,' unpublished report, 1992.


Firth 'The Auckland Water Supply System,' NZE vol.12.9, 1957 (13MB).pdf


Hunua Ranges Regional Park, Auckland.


Access Info
The dams are within the Hunua Ranges Regional Park. Access information is available from the Auckland Council website.

Nature of Engineering
Infrastructure (incl. Road, water, ports)


Mangatawhiri Dam under construction, Hunua Ranges, Auckland Region, 12 February 1965. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-63449-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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New Zealand Engineering cover, volume 12:9 (1957) showing Bellmouth spillway and inake tower at Cosseys Creek Dam.

(Click image to enlarge )

Lat: -37.050519 Long: 175.177689