Canterbury is officially back in drought, two years after the region's worst-ever dry spell.



"Things are now as serious as they were in 1998," said National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) scientist Jim Salinger.



The 1998 year was the second of two drought years that cost New Zealand almost $1 billion in lost farm income.



Dr Salinger said most of Canterbury now had a soil moisture deficit of more than 130mm. Soils with deficits of more than 100mm are considered in drought.

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Federated Farmers national president Alistair Polson said the drought was also affecting Nelson, Marlborough and the Wairarapa.



But Canterbury farmers could still sell stock at good prices or buy feed because other southern regions were not affected.



"It is a later drought than the other ones that started in spring and I don't see the impact being as dramatic. If farmers can get ewes up to weight for tupping it won't be too bad," Mr Polson said.



Dr Salinger said most of Canterbury received only a few millimetres of rain last month.



"In March we are looking for below-average rainfall in Canterbury," he said. "There is nothing in sight yet."



He predicted that the fire risk would be at least high and could reach extreme in coming weeks.



Irrigation restrictions had been placed on 25 rivers and streams. Environment Canterbury water resource scientist Graeme Horrell said it was unusual for so many to be restricted.



The Waimakariri irrigation scheme and the Rangitata diversion race were two of the largest waterways included in the drought measures.

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"If it goes on it is certainly going to create problems," Mr Horrell said.



Rangiora farmer Ken Brosnan said the dry weather had brought his unirrigated sheep and crop farm to a standstill.



Duncan Lundy, who farms sheep, beef, and deer near Okuku in north Canterbury and is also without irrigation, said his property had not had decent rain since November.



Farmers at the top of the South Island were selling livestock and orchardists were rationing irrigation water.



Farmer Colin Gibbs, of Nelson's Gibbs Valley, has been selling stock and feeding out winter supplies as the drought worsened.



"We're offloading all the fattening stock and doing a prudent cull of the capital stock at this stage."

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He knew of farmers already carting water for stock and farm use.



Pastures had dried up and rain was needed before the winter cold stopped grass growth.



Tasman district councillor, farmer and commercial flower grower Tim King was blunt: "It's a bugger and you can quote me on that."



Mr King and his family had flagged away the prospect of making any money this year from the commercial flower operation and had resorted to buying in water simply to keep it ticking over.



The family's Eves Valley farmhouse was out of water and the stock were also just managing on what was left in the bottom of streams and irrigation dams.



Mr King is the water spokesman for the council and involved in making decisions that cut water feeding his and his neighbours' properties.

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Additional rationing on water taken from the Lower Confined and Delta aquifers, which affect the Waimea River, was the latest in water cuts that started early last month.



Stage three cuts could be in sight for Waimea irrigators, depending on how savings made in the latest round affect the Waimea River's level.



"It's extremely dry and the worrying thing is it's conceivable it could remain this dry for the next four to six weeks," Mr King said.



To get more accurate information, permitted water users have been asked to send in water-meter readings each week instead of every month.



"That'll give us more accurate information on which to base management decisions.



"But it gets to the point where rationing gets irrelevant, a point where cutting people's water use is not going to save any more water."

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He said the financial implications of the drought "are starting to become quite dramatic."



Waimea orchardist Richard Kempthorne said: "I haven't considered the effects of the drought on my income and I'm not going to.



"Right now we are harvesting fruit and that's what I'm focusing on."



Two staged water cuts had sliced 35 per cent off his orchard's budget. He had stopped watering young trees and cut off supplies to harvested blocks.



"Right now I'm working out where I can use the remaining water to the best advantage.



"It will not be enough, but that's all we can do."

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Mr Kempthorne predicted that the rationing could speed up the pipfruit harvest as drier fruit matured earlier.



- NZPA