Drought means big trouble for Kiwi farmers

NZ Stuff
January 12, 2015
Marty Sharpe

‘UNCHARTED TERRITORY’: The manmade Lake Opuha is drying up

If a decent spell of rain doesn’t arrive soon some parts of the country will be in trouble, but none as much as South Canterbury, where some farmers are heading into “uncharted territory”.

Farmers reliant on the Opuha dam near Fairlie for irrigation are facing unprecedented water restrictions, and unless rain comes in the next few weeks the lake will effectively dry up for the first time in its 16-year history.

Pleasant Point dairy farmer Brent Isbister, one of 250 landowners reliant on water from the manmade lake, has had to cull 10 per cent of his dairy herd of 1150 and a further 10 per cent has been sent out of the region, due to the drought-like conditions.

And things are not expected to get any better soon, according to NIWA. Timaru had just 21mm of rain over December – about a third of normal – and less than a millimetre has fallen so far this month. Soil moisture levels are severely low in the area, and NIWA does not see matters improving anytime soon.

Its seasonal outlook through to March predicts rainfall to be around normal or less than normal, while temperatures will be normal or higher for the eastern parts of Canterbury and Otago.

Federated Farmers South Canterbury president Ivon Hurst said he couldn’t remember a dry period like this since the nineties.

“It’s all on this year. Irrigation has started a month earlier than normal. There’s no snow on the mountains to give us a bank of residual water in the rivers. It’s more a matter of time as to the seriousness. I think the irrigation guys are in the hardest position.

“Ironically, it’s those with irrigation that are likely to be the worst off because of course they’re stocked up to the limit and have high standing costs so when they do get caught without water, they are in real trouble,” Hurst said.

Usually the lake holds around 90 per cent of its 72million cubic metres capacity in January. At present it has just 30 per cent, and unless it rains soon the lake will effectively be dry by the end of next month.

Farmers are subject to restrictions at present with farmers only able to use 75 per cent of their usual water supply. It was down to 50 per cent in mid-December, and is expected to return to that level next week.

Isbister has been dairy farming in the Pleasant Point area for 13 years and has been a member of the scheme the entire time. He said users had never faced a 50 per cent restriction in the past.

Unlike other irrigation schemes on the Waitaki and Rangitata Rivers, which were fed by rainfall on the West Coast, the Opuha scheme relied on rain falling on the east of the divide, and on snowmelt. The dearth of snow over winter had a major impact, Isbister said.

“We’re 20 per cent down on production compared to last year. If it doesn’t rain, that’ll grow to 30 to 40 per cent,” he said.

“The decisions you make in a low payout year [such as the current year] are different to those you’d make in a high payout year. In a high pay out year you’d try to feed your way out of it. You’d buy food in and keep milk production up because it was economically viable. In a low payout year, you can’t do that,” he said.

“There are two impacts to cash flow for dairy farmers here. One is the payout impact, which for us will be about a million bucks in the season to June. The drought impact is another $500,000,” Isbister said.

Opuha Water Ltd’s chief executive Tony McCormick said the scheme, which provided irrigation to 16,000 hectares, was headed into “uncharted territory”.

“The lake has been lower than present on three previous occasions but they’ve all been at the end of the season, not smack in the middle. We’re going to need substantial rain to get back to normal levels, and with a strengthening El Nino [weather system] we don’t see that happening,” he said.

Water restrictions and fire bans are in place throughout parts of Otago and Canterbury, with other districts around the country looking to impose similar bans this month unless it rains.


Much of the east side of the South Island, particularly South Canterbury and parts Otago, had the greatest soil moisture deficit, with “severely drier to extremely soils for this time of year”, said NIWA forecaster Chris Brandolino.

The lower east coast of the North Island, from Hastings south, also had “severely to extremely drier than normal soil moisture” for this time of year, he said.

“From northern Hawke’s Bay northwest through much of the Waikato soils are much drier to severely drier than normal for this time of year,” he said.

“Over the past couple of months there has not been a lot of rain in those areas. In other words, this is not a recent thing.”

Brandolino said there was no significant rain expected in the worst hit areas in the coming week.

NIWA is predicting a disturbed westerly flow across the Tasman with occasional northeasterlies in the North Island between now and March.

Temperatures are likely to be about normal for most of the country over this period. Rainfall is likely to be about normal for the North Island and top of the South Island, but elsewhere in the South Island could see below normal amounts of rain.

Soil moisture levels are most likely to be below normal in the east of the South Island. The east and north part of the North Island could also have below normal soil moisture levels while the rest of the country should have normal levels.

River flows are most likely to be below normal in the east of the South Island, and near-normal or below normal in all other regions

– Stuff