19 Jan 2015

Drought fears grow as dry spell continues

7:25 pm on 19 January 2015

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy is expected to visit the parched South Canterbury area in the next few weeks as concern mounts that it and some other regions may be heading for a serious drought.

Dry hills in the South Island (file photo)

Dry hills in the South Island (file photo) Photo: 123rf

The Ministry for Primary Industries is monitoring the conditions in South Canterbury, as well as North Otago, Wairarapa and southern Hawke's Bay.

MPI director of resource policy David Wansbrough said it had been talking with farmers and rural support trusts on a weekly basis.

However, he said farmers and communities appeared to be coping so far and the Government was not planning to step in with any support measures at this stage.

He said staff monitor the amount of rainfall, soil moisture levels and river levels and also get good information from people on the ground.

"Rural support trusts, based on feedback from farmers, [tell us] how they are coping, are there feed supplies around the place and a little bit of context.

"If there was a really good growing season beforehand and the people have got lots of feed supplies in storage, that's different from if it's come on top of a few really bad years."

Irrigation rationed in Otago

The Otago Regional Council said most river catchments in its area had now hit their minimum flow levels or fallen below them.

North and central Otago were most under stress and water for irrigation from rivers including the Shag and Kakanui was either no longer available or being rationed or rostered.

Council chief executive Peter Bodeker said a 24-hour irrigation ban on the Taieri River last week had confirmed there was also very little water left in that system for allocation.

"What we were looking to do was to see if there was any spare water in the Taieri that could be allocated over and above the minimum flow and what we found was there was very little."

Mr Bodeker said most farmers had turned off their irrigation before the council asked but the exercise was valuable in helping it work out how quickly the water flowed down the river in such dry conditions.

He said while most permit holders had been co-operating with water rationing arrangements, the regional council had had reports of a small number of farmers who had ignored them and continued to take water.

Declaring a drought won't make it rain - Feds

Federated Farmers North Otago president Richard Strowger said the dry spell probably felt worse because the past four years had been brilliant.

He said the region got a lot of rain and farmers were able to grow a lot of feed and finish a lot of stock.

But he said people were just dealing with it and planning ahead.

"When you're a farmer you have to work with Mother Nature, and she gives us really wet periods and snow and wind and this is a really dry period and farmers just have to deal with it because that's what they've got.

"You know MPI can declare it a drought but it doesn't really change anything for a farmer, other than you know, he knows it was dry and now officially the minister has told him it is a drought," he said.

"Declaring a drought is more about the whole impact on the community."

Federated Farmers South Canterbury president Ivon Hurst said the situation was getting desperate.

He said the region has had long dry spells before but for the first time irrigated farms stocked to the hilt may have their water cut off.

South Canterbury Rural Support Trust chair David Hewson said there had been no significant rainfall since June, which was causing problems for all farmers.

"I've just heard of one situation today and he's been dairy farming for more than 15 years probably but he has run out of stock water ... That shows you how severe it's got," he said.

"Throughout South Canterbury people have weaned and sold lambs earlier than normal without finishing them so people are flat out making decisions about how they're going to manage the current situation."

MPI said farmers could seek relief by having tax assistance through the Inland Revenue Department, and rural support.

Federated Farmers could deal with co-ordinating feed supplies if necessary.

Hawke's Bay soil dries out

Hawke's Bay Regional Council is also monitoring the dry conditions across its region.

It said most of the region had near normal rainfall last month, but some areas had had either no rain or very little rain for four weeks or more.

The council said soil moisture levels were low and about 75 millimetres of rain was needed to get pasture growing again.

It said aquifer levels and flows in most Hawke's Bay rivers had been below normal for three months or more.

Some irrigation restrictions were already operating and the council said if there was no significant rainfall, irrigators could expect more bans to come into force in the coming weeks.

'Ideal' for vineyards

Grape growers said while the hot dry spell was impacting on farmers, it was ideal for vineyards.

The east of the South Island was experiencing a long dry spell which began in spring.

Pegasus Bay Winery general manager Paul Donaldson said while a little bit of rain would not go astray, the weather was almost ideal for grapes.

He said a hot year also made for good fruit flavours in wine such as pinot noir.