Dry face of things to come

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 05/04/2014
Boston Curd
CHARLOTTE CURD

Hard yards: Like other youngsters in Taranaki, Boston Curd will play the first day of the winter sports season on sun-browned turf.

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A warm and fertile spring has helped farmers weather this year's dry patch but not everyone has escaped unscathed. Matt Rilkoff reports on how this junior drought may be a glimpse into the future. 

Lately Mark Bruhn has been greeting each clear blue Taranaki morning with a grimace.

While others bask in the unexpected run of hot, settled weather the New Plymouth District Council parks manager knows every rain-free day is another day his staff can't prepare the district's playing fields for the turf-ripping rugby scrummages they will face from today.

"We irrigate two sports fields in New Plymouth - Yarrow Stadium and Pukekura Park - and they are looking good. But every other field in the district is looking like the Sahara.

"This is the third of April," he says in frustration. "We had rain well and truly by this time last year."

Indeed last year was a drought, a tinder-dry summer that saw people descend on beaches in droves as dairy farmers despaired at plummeting production and sheep farmers sent truck after truck of animals to the works for want of grazing.

This dry patch is having a different impact. The farmers were ready, but it's snuck up on the rest of Taranaki, arriving later, and staying far longer than expected.

And though rain is forecast for next week it has been forecast before and not arrived. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) has put the odds of the next three months at being drier than average at 40 per cent. Dry autumns may be something we simply have to get used to.

Earlier this week a United Nations report into climate change warned of increased risk of wildfire, storms, floods, landslides and sea level rises due to a 2-4 degree Celsius rise in average temperatures in New Zealand by the end of the century.

For Taranaki that is probably going to mean an increasing incidence of two extremes: drier, longer summers and wetter winters.

But this year Bruhn is crossing his fingers for rain to resuscitate his grass before it's too late.

"If you lose the structure of the grass there is a risk the fields turn straight to mud when the rain does come. That is something we are concerned about. What we need is a gentle steady rain."

It's not just playing fields but other grassy areas too that thirst for rain. An unpopular but necessary water-saving ban on sprinklers in the New Plymouth district has seen grassy spots at Puke Ariki landing and the foreshore turn as brown and dusty as city residents' lawns.

Such water restrictions have not been necessary in South Taranaki this year, or the last. This is largely because the council has spent $56 million on upgrades to its water system in the previous eight years and that has included tapping relatively stable ground water supplies to complement its surface water reservoirs.

Ground water, once found, is of a higher quality than surface water, which means it's cheaper and easier to treat, says South Taranaki engineering assets and planning manager Howard Wilkinson.

"Quality was the driver in tapping groundwater, but it also has the impact that we can manage things during dry periods better than before.

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"We can use it to augment supply during these dry times. We switched it on for six to eight weeks this year."

Letting available river water go untapped is not a luxury the New Plymouth district has. Its water supply depends almost exclusively on the Waiwhakaiho River, currently flowing at near-record lows.

Even so, there is more than enough to meet average demand. It's peak demand that is the problem and that comes in summer, or this year, during an exceptionally dry autumn, says council water and waste manager Mark Hall.

"In round numbers we are talking about 10 million litres a day extra during summer."

Or four Olympic-sized swimming pools each day, almost exclusively to keep residential grass and tomato plants alive.

That gap between supply and demand won't be bridged any time soon. An additional reservoir would cost millions of dollars and years of planning, Halls says, and tentative searches for ground water supplies have yet to reap rewards.

With drier summers predicted to increase in frequency Hall knows something will have to be done well before 2030, when average demand is tipped to equal average supply. What form that action takes is crystal ballgazing at this stage, he says, though other districts have responded to such supply issues by installing household water meters.

"What they have found in other districts is the use of water meters immediately results in a 20 per cent drop in average demand and a 33 per cent drop in peak demand," says Hall, while cautioning that no one has yet raised metering as an option.

But they are being installed in new properties and some old, so the option is being slowly put in place.

Taranaki Regional Council environment quality director Gary Bedford says planning for a future of drier summers and wetter winters is something that definitely should be starting now.

"We are not going to see a sudden shift but if you are building a home you have got a 50 to 100-year lifespan you are planning for and if you are building a garden you are probably looking at 10 to 20 years. So it is time to be thinking about these things and planning accordingly."

That means everything from more steeply pitched roofs to speed away heavy rainfall, larger gutters to deal with it, to rain water tanks and raised vegetable gardens. The climatic extremes of dry and wet also means a change to farming methods, he says, quickly admitting how farmers will cope is not for tie-wearing boffins like him to decide.

Taranaki Federated Farmers dairy chairman Bryce Kaiser believes farmers are continually adapting anyway, the proof of this being how easily they've handled this late dry period.

They learned their lessons from last year, he says, and profited from a particularly bountiful spring which allowed them to grow healthy supplies of supplementary feed.

Wetter winters can also be planned for, he says, and farmers will quickly find ways that work for their particular situations.

"Even if it's a wet winter the water gets away in Taranaki pretty quick. I don't think it's going to be as bad as on the West Coast or in Northland and if it is we will start looking at how they do things," he says. "Farmers will always adapt."

Residential gardeners are also going to have to learn to adapt, says Fairfields garden centre owner Adrian McLeod.

"I think I heard on the radio this morning that four out of the last five years have been declared drought in the Waikato and we haven't been far behind," he says "It can't be ignored."

Good gardening methods can reduce the amount of water needed, irrigation can be done more efficiently and people can plant different species, more suited to the changing environment.

"I think we have always taken our water for granted," he says. "You only have to walk around the suburbs at night and see water running down people's driveways to realise that."

TWO VIEWS

Ken Ring uses lunar cycles to predict weather. He's loved by many, written off as a quack by others. We compare his forecast for Taranaki in the next three months with those from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research for the Central North Island, which includes Taranaki.

RING: Parts of Taranaki could have a wetter than average autumn, with average temperatures.

Due to some heavy dumps, April for some may be wetter, cloudier and warmer than the long-term average.

Good rain, although intermittent is expected about the middle of this month onwards and then at the end of April into the start of May.

Easter brings patchy showers, with a few heavy falls in places.

May is drier, sunnier and warmer than average and could be the wettest for the region at the start of the month, and the first frost may kick in around mid-month.

June may be wettest in the first few days but overall brings average rain and about 11 frost days, but more sun than normal.

NIWA: Temperatures are likely (35 - 40 per cent chance), to be near-average, or below average.

Rainfall totals are equally likely (40 per cent chance) to be normal or below normal.

Soil moisture levels and river flows are likely (40 to 45 per cent) to be in the normal or near normal range.

- Taranaki Daily News

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