29 Dec 2015

Marlborough drought threatens grape harvest

7:00 pm on 29 December 2015

Extremely dry weather in Marlborough is already taking its toll on vineyards in the region, a winemaker says.

The sun rises over the vineyards of Waikakaho Valley in Marlborough

The sun rises over the vineyards of Waikakaho Valley in Marlborough Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Water restrictions are likely for residents in Marlborough as the region prepares for what could be one of the driest summers in decades.

The Marlborough District Council said the region would experience a severe drought unless there was a substantial amount of rain soon.

Yealands Family Wine founder Peter Yealands said the area was as dry as he could remember.

"There is no soil moisture whatsoever. If you're trying to drive a post into the ground, it's nearly impossible."

"We've never never anticipated such an extreme drought, or dry, so early in the season.

Mr Yealands said most wineries would have a backup water supply for dry conditions, but it would only last a month.

Marlborough District mayor Alistair Sowman

Marlborough District mayor Alistair Sowman Photo: RNZ

He said if he ran out of water he may have to sacrifice some of his crop to save the vines.

Marlborough Mayor Alistair Sowman said wine was the dominant economy driver in the region.

"If we don't get any rain by the end of the week, the southern valleys irrigation scheme, that irrigates about 4500 ha - mainly grapes - is likely to be turned off, and that's a major."

Mr Sowman said if the irrigation scheme was turned off, water would have to be trucked to vineyards.

Marlborough Principal Rural Fire Officer Richard McNamara urged people to take care with fire as severe drought gripped the region.

A total fire ban was in place south of the Wairau River down to the Canterbury boundary, meaning no solid fuel fires outside, including camp fires or outdoor log burners.

"We've had very little rainfall in the last two or three months and couple with that we have El Nino in full swing as we head into summer," he said.

"That obviously means westerly wind and no real prospect of heavy rainfall."

That, in turn, meant drought conditions were developing, particularly in the north-east of the South Island, and the fire danger was increasing.

The Fire Service had already had a busy summer and expected to be called out more, he said.

Farm consultant Ian Blair urged Marlborough farmers to get help if they needed it as the region braced for a dry summer.

"The most at risk at the present time are those who are deeply indebted or who owe a lot of money, and they need to talk to their financiers," he said.

"They need to be talking to their banks in terms of getting them through the present crisis, because you're always going to get one season in any number that's going to be bad but there are people there who will support you."

Socialising was important, as well as planning ahead, Mr Blair said.

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