Angry Kaikohe residents have accused their council of not doing enough to avert a water crisis that could mean the town will run dry in three days.
The whole of Northland is being urged to save water, and tough restrictions are now in place in Kaitaia, Kaikohe and parts of the Kaipara.
Northland is parched. It has seen no significant rain for two months and public water supplies are drying up.
The situation is the worst in the Far North where the district council has imposed strict Level 4 water restrictions in Kaikohe and Kaitaia. Kaipara District Council imposed Level 4 restrictions on users of its Dargaville scheme, which includes Baylys Beach, late last month.
Level 4 restrictions mean water is for essential use only - drinking, cooking and washing.
About 150 people went to a public meeting at Kaikohe Memorial Hall yesterday evening called by the town's business association.
Many residents were angry, saying the Far North District Council (FNDC) could have done more to avert the crisis and its communications to them about the situation was seriously lacking.
FNDC acting CEO, corporate services manager Will Taylor, acknowledged the council could have done more to keep residents up to date about the situation.
Taylor said the council needed to up the ante in its communications and had not handled that aspect well so far.
''We do need to do more.''
Far North mayor John Carter and CEO Shaun Clarke were not at the meeting.
Taylor said it was vital everybody did all they could to conserve water.
The meeting was told that if the town did not make water savings, it did not rain and the council did not get consent to take more water from its sources, the town's supply could run out in three days.
The Northland Regional Council says the big dry is only going to get worse and is urging those who are not already doing so to conserve water wherever they can.
The situation could result in schools across the Far North closing for some days of the week if it doesn't improve.
And FNDC is warning those who repeatedly flout the restrictions can be fined up to $20,000.
FNDC compliance staff have approached several service stations about having their car washes operating.
''We encourage people to advise us of any breaches of the restrictions,'' a council spokesman said.
The last time FNDC imposed Level 4 restrictions was in 2010.
''We have been working closely with Ngawha Prison which plans to truck all the water it uses in from outside the district. We have also been working with the Triboard Mill in Kaitaia which has introduced water conservation measures,'' the spokesman said.
Whangārei has no restrictions, and is willing to help the rest of the region.
Kaikohe has three 30,000-litre water tanks put in by Civil Defence Northland in the old RSA in preparation for residents to use if the town's supply runs dry.
The town has two water sources, Wairoro Stream and an aquifer at Monument Hill, and both are below the consented level to take water.
Kaitaia had its restriction imposed on Thursday. FNDC infrastructure and asset management general manager Andy Finch said imposing the restrictions reflected just how critical the water situation was for Kaitaia.
"The Awanui River is the main source of drinking water for Kaitaia. Water flows in this waterway have fallen rapidly and to help reduce demand the council applied Level 3 water restrictions to Kaitaia in January.
"Unfortunately, flows have continued to drop and the council has breached low-flow limits set by Northland Regional Council. We must now apply Level 4 water restrictions to all Kaitaia businesses and households connected to council water supplies.
"We need several weeks of sustained rain to replenish our streams and rivers – not just a few heavy showers.
"However, MetService is predicting little chance of rain in coming weeks and no significant falls likely until May or even later. If correct, we face a very real prospect of taps running dry in Kaitaia – possibly within weeks.
"We are investigating alternative water sources and testing our contingency plans. These include the provision of emergency water supplies to residents at selected locations within Kaitaia."
FNDC is asking everyone in the Far North to reduce water consumption by 25 per cent. That includes people on rain water supplies.
"With no significant rain forecast, we know many water tanks will soon run dry. Town supplies are often used to refill private water tanks, placing an extra burden on our already stretched resources."
Fire and Emergency NZ has set up an emergency water supply in Kaikohe in case it's needed to fight fires. Three 15,000-litre portable dams have been set up in Kaikohe and filled with stream water for firefighting use, with a similar "static water supply" to be set up in Kaitaia.
Firefighters will also be using water tankers and the water carried in fire appliances, rather than hydrants.
So far this month the only rainfall recorded in Northland was 0.5mm at Waima and
Waimamaku, and this week the region had a three-day heatwave with temperatures above 30C across the region.
NRC publicly warned four months ago that with the region already facing large rainfall deficits, it was "extremely unlikely" Northland collectively would head into summer with anything close to average rainfall.
Flagging the need for sensible pre-summer planning in October last year, NRC's group manager regulatory services Colin Dall foreshadowed then that district councils operating public water supplies might need to look at imposing water restrictions "earlier than normal in some dry areas, including around Kaikohe and Dargaville".
He followed that up a month ago with a warning that – after one of the driest years on record – a number of the region's rivers were already below "minimum flow" levels, which wouldn't usually happen until February or March.
"Minimum flow" levels are designed to limit the amount of water that can be taken during dry periods to protect river ecology.
Dall said yesterday with those previous early signs unfortunately giving an all-too-accurate indication of the likely position the region had now found itself in, it was crucial that those who had not already done so began conserving whatever water they could; irrespective of whether they were being forced to via formal district council water restrictions or not.
"Save any water you can; all water saved now will help the region get through," he said.
As well as the individual actions people could take, Dall said it's important to remember that as owners and operators of town water supplies, district councils are effectively able to impose their own water restrictions as and when they wish, including those that ban all outdoor water use and mean water can only be used for essential drinking, cooking and washing.
Dall said, unfortunately, water savings of 25 per cent that the FNDC had asked for had failed to eventuate and in some cases water usage in the Far North had increased.
The actual mechanism for the Level 4 restrictions had been a "water shortage direction" the NRC had earlier issued the FNDC.
A "water shortage direction" allows a resource consent holder - the FNDC - to legally keep taking the most urgently needed water beyond the limits of its consent, provided it meets extra conditions to ensure the water resource lasts as long as possible.
The Level 4 restrictions now in place for Kaitaia and Kaikohe/Ngawha's town supplies ban all outdoor water use and mean water can now only be used there for essential drinking, cooking and washing.
Whangārei District Council is still at Level 1 - no formal restrictions in place - as while it is still urging people to use water sensibly, its water supplies are in better shape than its counterparts to the north and south.
Dall said with forecasters predicting it could still be months before the region received decent rain, the regional council had some time ago stepped up monitoring to gauge flow rates in critical rivers and streams and was also encouraging people to check the water levels of their bores.
"We've been keeping our major water resource consent holders in the loop about the water situation since spring last year to ensure they could plan for the dry conditions but have also been re-prioritising our own work programmes to help, including supporting district councils in their efforts to reduce water use.
"As part of this, we're providing district councils with the latest data we can to help them manage their public water supplies."
• Water restrictions for public water supplies operated by Northland's three district councils and water saving tips are available on www.bewaterwise.org.nz
Water saving tips
• Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth or shaving.
• Install a water-saving shower head.
• Use less water in the bath and take shorter showers.
• Flush the toilet less often.
• Wait until you have a full load of washing or make sure you set the machine for smaller loads.
• Store a bottle of drinking water in the fridge to help avoid running more water than you need for a glass of water.
• Put the plug in the sink when washing vegetables and avoid running the tap.
• Use the dishwasher for full loads only.