Bone-dry Northland could be days away from a drought being declared — the sixth in less than 12 years — unless there's significant rain soon.
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor visited a dairy farm in Tangiteroria, half way between Whangārei and Dargaville, and a kumara farm in Dargaville yesterday to view first-hand the dry conditions in Northland.
Niwa has declared Northland and northern Waikato, which have been experiencing significant soil moisture deficits, as "hotspots" and the very dry conditions will continue for the next two weeks as high pressure remains overhead.
This will lead to little if any rainfall for most of the North Island, and any locations that do see rainfall will generally receive 5mm or less.
Representatives from the Rural Support Trust, Federated Farmers Northland, Northland Civil Defence Emergency Management Group and other stakeholders will meet on Wednesday next week to discuss the situation.
O'Connor was in no rush to declare a drought, saying a number of factors and reports from the Ministry for Primary Industries and other stakeholders would help him make that determination.
He said there seemed to be quite a bit of variation in grass growth across Northland and clearly with the wind blowing and the heat, the ground was losing moisture very quickly.
"I think it's important that we don't too quickly declare a drought and build a reputation around an area for being unreliable as a farming block so there are some downsides to a declaration of drought and negative environmental and weather issues when we are trying to encourage wise utilisation of land.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know this region is starting to face a drought reality and there are still areas that are green so every single farm will be in a different situation.
"Some might be very keen to declare a drought, others won't, so we'll work in a fair and systematic way through that analysis.
He hoped rain fell in Northland soon.
"There's certainly been enough particles in the atmosphere and with the heat, I guess we'll have evaporation and ultimately that turns into precipitation. It will come."
A drought is classified as either localised, medium-scale, or large-scale based on the Ministry for Primary Industry's assessment of options available for farmers to prepare for the event, the likelihood and scale of the physical impact, and the capacity of the community to cope economically and socially.
According to Niwa forecast, the hottest days of summer so far that started yesterday will linger until early next week.
Temperatures over 25C will be widespread while the mercury could exceed 35C in some places.
Niwa meteorologist Ben Noll said from a weather and climate perspective, the threshold for drought in Northland has already been met.
However, he said the Government took other factors into consideration after talking to farmers and civil emergency officials, among others, before declaring a drought.
"The entire Northland is extremely dry but the worst affected areas are the eastern parts of Whangārei, southern Kaipara, and the Aupouri Peninsula," Noll said.
Last year, Whangārei received 755mm of rain which was only 54 per cent of the normal rainfall, Kaitaia had 910mm (65 per cent), and Dargaville 906mm (80 per cent).
Whangārei and Kaipara had the driest year on record in 2019 since records began in 1937 and 1948 respectively. Dargaville was the fourth driest since records there began in 1943.
So far in January up until midday on Thursday, just 3mm of rain had fallen in Kaitaia, 4mm in Cape Reinga, 7mm in Dargaville, and 12.8mm in Whangārei.
The normal January rain in Kaitaia is 88.8mm, Cape Reinga 58mm, Dargaville 70.8mm, and Whangārei 78.2mm.
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Noll said with temperatures expected to be above to well above average in the coming days, this would lead to further soil moisture loss in Northland.
Whangārei water carrier Andrew Kevey hasn't been this busy in the past 13 years. About a month ago, he was doing six to seven loads a day but is now doing about 14 with two trucks.
"This time last year, I was using just one truck but the demand now has definitely gone up.
"A lot of people are pre-booking and just topping up and we've seen the older population running out of water because they can't check their water levels properly.
"We're comfortable with the demand at present but I may have to look for another driver if there's no rain soon," he said.
Maungaturoto dairy farmer Ashley Cullen said farmers in his area were not hitting the panic button yet.
The Federated Farmers former Northland dairy chairman said although it was "reasonably green" in Maungaturoto, the situation could become dire if it didn't rain in the next three to four weeks.