Northland heading for drought

By Staff reporter

Northland could be heading for its third consecutive summer drought with water levels on rivers and streams across the region receding and tinder-dry scrub at risk of going up in flames.

Firefighters are still trying to bring a massive Far North fire under control and while weather watchers fear another drought is looming, there's little sign of any immediate relief. The region's dams are in good shape and farmers have plenty of feed, but are worried there could be another drought if rain doesn't come soon.

But there's no short term rain relief for those hoping for a bit of the wet stuff over the next couple of weeks, Niwa says.

Northland's worst drought in decades was declared in January 2010, which cost farmers millions. Another drought was declared in December last year, but it was over after a few days of heavy rain. With the La Nina weather pattern firmly over the country this summer, Northland local bodies are to keep a close eye on ground moisture levels and water supplies.

niwa climate scientist Andrew Tait said there was no short term rain relief in sight for the region, with the forecast showing very little chance of rain in Northland for the next two weeks.

"While there's no short term good news there is the chance that rainfall [for the rest of the summer] will be about normal," he said.

However, with the region's soil moisture levels very low, Northland would need well above average rainfall to get the ground more moist and reduce the risk of fires, but that was unlikely to happen.

Niwa measures the moisture in the top 150mm of soil and Dr Tait said those levels were up to 30mm below normal in Northland for this time of year, similar to the situation ahead of the January 2010 drought.

Water resources in Northland will be under severe pressure if reasonable rain does not fall in the next two months, the region's top environment watchdog has warned. Rainfall in the 22 days of November was between 50 and 80 per cent below average, resulting in streams that feed rivers to run low.

Northland Regional Council water resources/hydrology programme manager Dale Hansen said river flow rates throughout Northland were fairly similar to November 2009 but about 20 per cent higher than last year. However, most streams were receding because of insufficient rainfall in the past three weeks.

"At current rate of river flows throughout most of Northland and if no reasonable rain fell in the next two months, water resources could be under pressure by the end of the year," Mr Hansen said.

Water restrictions in Whangarei are unlikely as the dams in the district are nearly full. Council spokeswoman Rachel Pascoe said Whau Valley Dam level was 93 per cent full compared with 92 per cent last year and 85 per cent in 2009. Wilsons' Dam is about 99 per cent full.

"The Hatea river supply is currently being used to reduce demand on the dam. The long- range forecast is for a return to normal summer rainfall patterns in the new year. If this occurs then it is unlikely restrictions would be required," Ms Pascoe said.

Far North District Council spokesman Richard Edmondson said dam levels were not at a critical stage, but the council will next week review river and water supply levels and weather forecasts. A Kaipara District Council spokesman said there were no issues with low water supply as yet.

Northland farmers are making hay while the sun shines, but are keeping a close watch on the weather, needing rain soon to keep grass and crops growing.

In the Far North, Fonterra Shareholders Council representative Terence Brocx, of Okaihau, was relatively happy after "one of the best late springs we've had in a long time ... Everything is good feedwise. Growth rates have been fantastic. I've made two crops of silage this year."

- Northern Advocate

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