Nelson-Tasman region drought of 2019 worse than 2001, says MP Nick Smith

MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF
A warning was made last week about a looming water crisis in Tasman district.

The drought tightening its grip on Nelson and Tasman is "ramping up" to be the most serious the region has faced, says long-serving Nelson MP Dr Nick Smith.

"I was around for the drought of 2001," Smith said. "I thought that was as bad as it could get.

"It is clear that this is worse."

Smith's comments come after news that most water permit holders on the bone-dry Waimea Plains face a 65 per cent cut from Monday, which includes the Tasman District Council's own allocation for its reticulated system that supplies several key urban areas, including Richmond.

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Nelson MP Dr Nick Smith, left, and West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor flank Minister of Civil Defence Kris Faafoi at a meeting for families affected by the Tasman district forest fire.
LUZ ZUNIGA/STUFF
Nelson MP Dr Nick Smith, left, and West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor flank Minister of Civil Defence Kris Faafoi at a meeting for families affected by the Tasman district forest fire.

Such a huge cut in water allocations is expected to be devastating for many growers on the plains with yields already down at one large market gardening operation along with a reduction in new plantings and fears for fragile leafy greens that are now just surviving.

There is also concern about the effect of the water cuts on the coming apple harvest.

Tasman district mayor Richard Kempthorne on Wednesday called the drought an "extremely serious situation" and suggested the cost to the economy could be greater than $100 million.

A Central South Island Helicopter fills its monsoon bucket in the Wai-iti River near Wakefield as the battle continues to fight the wildfire that started in Pigeon Valley.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF
A Central South Island Helicopter fills its monsoon bucket in the Wai-iti River near Wakefield as the battle continues to fight the wildfire that started in Pigeon Valley.

The last time such tough water restrictions were announced, it was March 2001 and it rained before they came into force.

"We've gone beyond the conditions of 2001," Smith said. "This is ramping up to be the most serious drought Nelson has ever had."

It would have "incredibly serious economic impacts" for the regional economy.

Smith called on the Government to provide transitional support for small and medium-sized businesses of $500 a week for each full-time employee and $300 a week for each part-time worker. It would help businesses that were "financially bleeding" retain their staff.

"If the big dry continues, there's the potential for the economic impacts to be greater than that from the horrific fires we've suffered," Smith said. "We're in the hands of the weather gods."

Long-time Waimea Plains farmer Murray King said he believed it had been as dry before in the 1970s but the difference now was the "unprecedented demand" for water.

"There's a lot more people living in the region ... and more people growing high-value crops that cannot turn the tap off."

When asked what could be done, West Coast-Tasman MP and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said: "We can all pray for rain because that's the only thing that's going to solve this."

Growers on the plains and the wider community had been aware of the danger of drought "for some time".

The Wai-iti Valley Community Dam in Tasman district was low on Wednesday.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF
The Wai-iti Valley Community Dam in Tasman district was low on Wednesday.

"Hence, the longer-term discussion and debate over the Waimea dam," O'Connor said, referring to a planned 53m concrete-faced rockfill dam in the Lee Valley that has been approved but not yet built.

However, the reality was "the production system gets ramped up" with irrigation and the "assumption of guaranteed water" but even once the dam was commissioned, the region could still be affected by "really dry periods".

People around the world were facing "some pretty acute climate change issues".

This picture paints a thousand words as a car drives down Barton Lane near Spring Grove on the Waimea Plains.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF
This picture paints a thousand words as a car drives down Barton Lane near Spring Grove on the Waimea Plains.

"New Zealand is not free from those," O'Connor said.

The Government had been focused on trying to build more resilience throughout the rural sector. For the Waimea Plains, better resilience might involve looking at new crops or the diversification of crops.

Across New Zealand, basic infrastructure had been taken for granted such as water supply and water quality, O'Connor said.

There are concerns about the low flow in the Waimea River.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF
There are concerns about the low flow in the Waimea River.

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