New Zealand: full steam ahead with plan to save its geysers

Rotorua, with its hot springs, geysers, and boiling mud pools, is running out of steam. The city, one of New Zealand's biggest tourist attractions, lies atop a cauldron of volcanic activity in the heart of this country's North Island. The most famous geothermal area is Whakarewarewa, a down-sized New Zealand version of Yellowstone, which contains a village where Maoris (aborigines) live by traditional right.

But the tourist draw is losing its attraction. Where 130 geysers used to play on the main geothermal field outside Rotorua, only six remain. The rest have fallen dormant over the last 30 years.

Pohutu, Rotorua's ``Old Faithful,'' used to eject boiling water 100 feet into the air several times a day, regular as clockwork. Now, it is a shadow of its former self, putting on its performances infrequently and at a lower height.

The cause of the problem, scientists say, is that for years the residents of Rotorua have plundered what they see as an inexhaustible supply of free energy. In the absence of controls, anyone could sink a bore and tap nature's generous underground supply of hot water and steam.

Householders plugged into vents to heat their homes. Hotels and motels around the geothermal field installed elaborate hot mineral-water pools for their guests, and nearby industrial plants cashed in by sinking their own bores.

They drew off up to 35,000 metric tons of water and steam a day with inefficient methods that wasted 90 percent of it. Geothermal activity throughout the field fell off, and water levels and temperatures dropped. Political pressure from local residents who were determined to maintain their free energy supplies meant that conservationists' warnings were ignored.

More than 800,000 visitors a year swell Rotorua's permanent population of 50,000, who live almost entirely by tourism. Nearly 300,000 of the visitors come from overseas and few of the 100,000 Americans who visit New Zealand annually miss a trip to Rotorua.

After years of dithering by successive governments, a plan has been launched to save from extinction what Environment Minister Phil Goff calls a priceless asset. The national government has seized control of the geothermal field from the Rotorua city council.

All geothermal bores within a one-mile radius of Pohutu will be shut down starting Dec. 1. From next April, inefficient bores throughout the whole Rotorua city area will be closed, and those remaining will be licensed and charged for.

``Everything that cannot be justified will have to be shut down,'' said Environment Minister Goff and Energy Minister Bob Tizard. ``If use of the resource can be justified, people will have to pay for the privilege.''

Government agencies using geothermal power have been told to convert to alternative energy sources. Only local Maoris -- who enjoy traditional rights to live in Whakarewarewa and use hot springs for washing and cooking -- will escape the restrictions.

Although residents and hoteliers have vowed to fight the plan, it has been welcomed as long overdue by scientists and tourism interests committed to saving Rotorua, which was established as a tourist resort more than 100 years ago.

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