Rain falling but NZ's drought costs soaring

NICOLE MATHEWSON, TRACY WATKINS, NICOLA BRENNAN
Last updated 14:39 17/03/2013
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MARK TAYLOR/Fairfax NZ
WELCOME RELIEF: A farmer in the Waikato sits on his tractor as rain finally falls.

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Rain has started falling over parts of the country today, but it will not be enough to break weeks of drought, MetService says.

Showers began falling over parts of Northland, Auckland, Waikato and the western North Island overnight, but the eastern side of the island was still bone-dry, meterologist Nicole Ranger said this morning.

The situation was similar in the South Island, with rain in the upper and western parts of the island overnight, but little or none in other parts.

"There will be enough to help [farmers], but we're not expecting any drought-breaking rain," Ranger said.

Kerikeri Airport was currently the wettest place in the country, recording 13.8 mm today, followed by Takaka Hill, in the Tasman district, with 12.7 mm.

Parts of the Waikato have woken this morning to the welcome sight of rain.

Although dark clouds and a few minutes of drizzle in some areas had threatened to break the drought yesterday it was not until about 2am today that the heavens opened for the rain-starved area.

Rain has been been reported in Maihihi, rural Te Awamutu, Otorohanga and Matamata.

Rototuna and Flagstaff were woken in the early hours to a hard rain, but that only lasted about 10 minutes.

Although heavy rain has been forecast for the South Island's West Coast, it has so far only received some drizzle today, and that is not enough to quench the region's parched land, Rural Support West Coast chairwoman Dianne Milne, said.

''If it keeps up it bodes well for the future, but it's just going to take so long for the ground to re-establish itself. We're still going to need the assistance that the drought declaration would give us.''

An official drought declaration would bring tax breaks for farmers and extra support for Rural Support Trusts.

The West Coast had never been in drought before and the current situation had come as a shock to local farmers, Milne said.

The region was drier ''the further north you go'', although some farmers in South Westland – usually one of the wettest places in the country – were also in ''dire straits''.

''The dairy farmers have been coping as best they can by using up their winter feed, which is going to be serious when winter comes.''

Surplus feed from Canterbury was being sent to other drought-affected areas in the North Island, leaving West Coast farmers with no back-up supplies. 

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Many farmers were now milking their cows only once a day and some had dried off their stock completely.

''We hearing quite a few would be drying off this weekend ... that's two, two-and-a-half months early, so that's income they won't get.''

A complex low is expected to bring more rain as it moves north across the country from Stewart Island today and heavy rain warnings are currently in place for Westland and the upper South Island.

Another 100 mm of rain could fall in Westland and the ranges northwest of Nelson, leading the MetService to warn that rivers and streams in those areas could rise suddenly.

Surface flooding and slips are also possible.

However, the rain is not enough to bring relief to the driest parts of the country.

On Friday, the entire North Island was declared a drought zone by the Government, while farmers on the West Coast became the first in the South Island to ask for drought assistance.
 
The dry conditions have led to the fifth-driest summer for North Canterbury since 1940, and access to river-fed irrigation for some farmers in the Oxford area was cut off about a month ago.

Federated Farmers earlier said the drought could cost the economy $1 billion - and the sum is growing daily.

Climate scientist Jim Salinger told Fairfax it was the worst drought in New Zealand in 70 years due to its severity and regional spread.
 
Just three days of consistent rain is needed to end the drought and get grass growing again, but if it did not come before May the "damage will already be done" for winter, he said.

Finance Minister Bill English says the costs of the drought are headed toward $2 billion.

English said the Government was getting updated advice over the next few weeks from Treasury but the latest estimates indicated ''somewhere between one and two billion will be knocked off our national income''.

''And as every week goes by the prospect of it being $2 billion instead of $1 billion grows.''

English told TVNZ's Q+A the drought had potential to knock 30 per cent off New Zealand’s growth rate in a year.

''This underlines for us the importance of New Zealand's primary production sector.''

- Stuff

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