Drought fears for Northland

By Abi Thomas -

Northland could be declared an official drought zone within weeks if the dry, windy weather continues.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) says soil moisture levels are so low, that the region is dry enough to be considered a drought zone for the third time in four summers.

A meeting in Okaihau on Tuesday will offer farmers strategies to cope with the dry summer. Although farmers are on rain-watch, they're not panicking just yet, having become used to coping with drier conditions in recent years.

Niwa's assessment of the conditions, with information about how people in the agricultural sector were coping, would combine to help the Minister for Primary Industries decide whether to declare a drought event. That would likely bring support in the form of grants and assistance packages for farmers suffering through Northland's third dry in four summers.

Niwa climate scientist Andrew Tait said a serious change in rainfall for Northland was the only chance of conditions improving here.

"You'd need well-above average rainfall for at least all of February for conditions to really change," he said.

He said parts of the Kaipara and the very Far North were driest right now, and most of Northland was considered to have extreme soil moisture deficit. Strong easterly winds were further decreasing soil moisture levels.

Northland Rural Support Trust co-ordinator Julie Jonker said 80 to 100mm would be welcomed, as the forecast drizzle wouldn't be enough.

Ms Jonker said farmers had learned to prepare for the dry conditions. Lots more maize was being grown as farmers knew to have extra feed available, she said.

"If you have a look around at the amount of maize crops, that wasn't the case 20 years ago."

The climate was changing and farmers were learning to be adaptable, Ms Jonker said.

An official drought was declared in Northland in January 2010, and again the next summer in December 2010. Last summer was wetter than usual, while this January there's been less than 20mm of rain across Northland, well down on average totals.

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