Very dry summer starts to take its toll

PETER WATSON
Last updated 13:00 28/02/2013
Mark
Photo: MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ
Thirsty: Mark O’Connor of Appleby Fresh inspects the parched soil.

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Further water rationing across much of an increasingly dry Tasman district is starting to bite, with market gardeners and dairy farmers in particular feeling the cuts.

The Tasman District Council yesterday announced that stage two rationing - involving cuts of 35 per cent to consented water takes - would apply over five aquifer zones on the Waimea Plains from Monday.

It also moved to bring in stage one cuts of 20 per cent in three other zones, while keeping it at that level in two Moutere zones.

The move follows a big drop in the Waimea River over the past week. Rivers elsewhere are under close watch, with the council warning that rationing may be required for the first time in the Wangapeka.

With little rain on the horizon and water levels continuing to fall rapidly, council dry weather taskforce convener Dennis Bush-King said a move to stage three cuts of 50 per cent was quite likely, which would require urban water users to make greater savings.

Two of the region's major market gardeners say the latest cuts will affect production and could lead to supply shortages later in the year.

Mark O'Connor of Appleby Fresh said his business was struggling to irrigate all its crops, and a 35 per cent cut would make it hard going.

"We have had to ease up on our planting, and crops aren't growing as quickly. There will be gaps sooner or later, because they are not getting enough water."

John Ewers said he would also have to limit plantings, which would affect production. "At a 20 per cent cut, we were just sneaking in, but at 35 per cent we won't be able to irrigate all our crops."

Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and lettuce were most likely to be affected, he said.

Down the road at Appleby, dairy farmer Ted Ford said further water rationing would reduce grass growth, which would affect milk flow, undermining what had until now been a good production season. He said he could partly offset this by using or buying in supplementary feed, but not for an extended period.

It also had the potential to compromise autumn grass growth.

Federated Farmers Nelson president Gavin O'Donnell said the province had gone from a normal dry summer to a very dry one quite quickly, which was putting farmers under financial and psychological strain.

It made it more difficult to look after animals properly, and had forced farmers to get rid of stock earlier, for less money and at lighter weights.

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As well as affecting production, the dry weather was costing farmers more to buy in extra feed, and crops planted for winter were struggling to grow, he said.

"This dry comes right at the time when sheep farmers are putting their rams out, and it is critical for good lambing percentages next year to have good-quality feed, which there isn't much of."

Orchardists aren't as badly affected because many have already begun to pick early-season apple varieties, and therefore don't require as much water.

Waimea Plains grower David Easton said most would be able to cope with rationing, but the real worry was what would happen from next year, after the Environment Court ruled on what was an appropriate minimum flow for the Waimea River.

There was every chance the court would set a higher level, which meant there was a high risk that in another dry season, no irrigation would be allowed, as water was already seriously over-allocated, he said.

About the only group not worried are grapegrowers. Waimea Estates general manager Ben Bolitho said it used only about a third of its water allocation, and this was falling as the crop ripened.

Mr Bush-King said that without rain over the next week, the Waimea River was likely to begin drying up below the Appleby Bridge.

Rapidly falling groundwater and river levels raised the risk of saltwater getting into aquifers and meant that a move to stage three rationing was likely, he said.

This would pose problems for urban water supplies and would mean further restrictions on hosing and the introduction of other water conservation measures, Mr Bush-King said. For example, Richmond would have to make savings of 13 per cent to stay within its allocation.

Dairy production hit, p8

- Nelson

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