Northland's worst drought in more than 70 years is firmly "locked in" with up to 1 metre of rain needed by October to give the region any chance of avoiding another drought next summer.

A drought was declared in Northland on February 11 and, since then, there has been below-average rainfall across the region. It's the sixth drought declared in Northland since 2009 and comes after two years of drier than normal conditions.

The Northland Regional Council (NRC) says the drought is now firmly locked in Northland and has tipped into one of the most severe droughts on record.

NRC Natural Resources Monitoring Manager Jason Donaghy said, "There's no quick fix for the serious situation the region is in."

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A burst of heavy rain is forecast for this weekend, followed by a return to dry conditions and cold southerlies next week. The rain would be welcome, but much more would be needed this winter to get the region back on its feet, he said.

"A dry winter in 2018 [followed] by a dry year in 2019 was the perfect set-up conditions for the drought currently gripping the region," Donaghy said.

"Storms and downpours are critical for the region this coming winter because this rain will determine how Northland's rivers and aquifer copes with the following summer."

 Whangārei's Whau Valley Dam is down to around 45 per cent.
Whangārei's Whau Valley Dam is down to around 45 per cent.

The council is already urging people to think ahead to next summer and give thought to storage options such as tanks and dams to protect against possible acute water shortages again next year.

Council monitoring and hydrology team reports indicate that rain in March and April has helped the region slightly, with the drought intensity dropping from extremely dry to severely dry along the east coast and in the Far North.

Rainfall for this year is 40 to 47 per cent below normal levels across all the main centres in Northland. Generally, Whangārei would have about 365mm of rain "in the bank" by May each year, according to Donaghy.

"The total to date is well below this at only 140mm."

Level 3 water restrictions sign, Riverside Drive, Whangārei.
Level 3 water restrictions sign, Riverside Drive, Whangārei.

By October, rainfall totals will need to be at least 750mm along the west coast of the region and about 900mm-1000mm along the east coast and in the Far North to give any chance of further drought next summer.

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Donaghy said the best way people could help the situation was simple: "Conserve water''.

Julie Jonker, Northland Rural Support Trust co-ordinator, said the drought was hitting farmers particularly hard, with the situation being compounded by the Covid-19 crisis.

Jonker said while some farmers in the region had had enough rain in recent weeks to get on with getting grass and feed growing, most were worried.

She said Northland farmers were a resilient and inventive bunch who would get through the drought, but most were doing it hard.

Julie Jonker, Northland Rural Support Trust co-ordinator, says the drought is hitting farmers particularly hard.
Julie Jonker, Northland Rural Support Trust co-ordinator, says the drought is hitting farmers particularly hard.

''There is another big problem. There are very little base supplements in Northland. Normally if that was the case we'd get it from Waikato or elsewhere in the North Island, but with all those places in severe drought too it's just not available.

''People need to be putting their activities in order now and look at PKE (Palm Kernel Expeller) or other supplements, but they can be quite expensive and that can be prohibitive.''

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She said farmers needing help could contact the Rural Support Trust on 0800 787254.

Rivers are particularly low in Bream Bay, Whangārei and some of the Far North catchments with most rivers from 80 per cent to 90 per cent below normal flows throughout March 2020. Donaghy said 23 of the district's 27 rivers were below drought levels.

The Russell and Ruawai groundwater systems have begun to recover, while water levels across the small East Coast aquifers are a "mixed bag", with some recovering and others still decreasing. The Mangawhai, Poroti and Maunu aquifers are still declining.

Surface water flows and groundwater sources in Whangārei and Far North coastal catchments are at such low levels that serious temporary water shortages exist in many coastal aquifers. Restrictions are continuing with water use restricted to essential use only in some communities.

Falling dam levels have prompted the Whangārei District Council to upgrade water restrictions to level 3, while in the Far North water restrictions are in place across the district, and also in parts of the Kaipara.

The water level at the Whau Valley Dam in Whangārei is down to about 45 per cent.

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Level 3 restrictions allow people to use a can to water gardens and a bucket to wash vehicles, windows, buildings and paved areas.

Much tighter limits on water take were in place in the Far North and Kaipara districts.

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