In the midst of a very wet winter, worries about water supply may seem remote, but experience has shown water and rainfall can’t be taken for granted.
NIWA is warning New Zealand may be in for an El Nino summer, which could mean warmer, drier conditions in the east. And while they’re not predicting a drought, a third one in a row is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
HortNZ’s Leigh Catley says water security is a national issue that in future will affect not only primary industries but the community as a whole.
“New Zealand’s commercial fruit and vegetable growers are well aware of the benefits of the relative abundance of water we have in this country, and just how vital that is to keep our agricultural economy thriving.
“HortNZ believes climate change and the arrival of the new El Nino weather pattern will put added pressure on water resources, which in some horticulture regions are already stretched,” says Leigh.
“The Bay of Plenty is relatively secure in water availability and use, but this does not mean it should be taken any less seriously here than other regions where the situation is more critical.”
Leigh says weather patterns have always been variable and it’s predicted there will be more severe extreme weather events in future. Securing adequate water supply is one way to cushion against these extreme events, she says.
“HortNZ is working at a national and regional level to investigate options and solutions to ensure water security.
“Such options include smart irrigation technology, water storage systems and research into water catchments, to ensure we have an in-depth understanding of ground and surface water in catchments so allocation of consents and limits are informed and effectively managed.
“We are now seeing growers taking action to protect the water they have, and extend their ability to manage water properly, through better use of technology, more on-farm storage and working together in catchments, rather than as stand-alone water users.”
Federated Farmers Bay of Plenty president Rick Powdrell says historically most farmers provided their own water supply, often from rain water, but in some regions sources of water from aquifers or streams and rivers are “over-allocated”.
“That’s not to say they are over-used, but to plan for the future we do need to know how much is allocated and how much is actually used.”
To get a clearer picture of what’s happening in the region, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council is carrying out a survey of available water and water use.
“Now is the time to think ahead about our future water needs,” says Rick.
“The kiwifruit industry has done well in its battle with Psa-V and if the industry takes off again, as it looks like it will, then water demand will increase in the Bay of Plenty.
“Throw in that NIWA is predicting we need to be prepared for drier conditions, then water demands will increase. No matter what we do, water is vital.”
Rick says the questions of water storage and flood protection are linked – and there is potential for water storage or dams on some tributaries in the Bay of Plenty, which could not only supply water for irrigation but also control flooding and provide possible hydroelectric generation.
However, gaining consents for such projects will not be easy.
During previous droughts Rick says the biggest worry for his farm, just south of Te Puke, was not so much feed but water. “Our farm is spring-fed and we noticed springs slowing up.”
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc president Neil Trebilco says while mature kiwifruit vines, growing on good soils, aren’t generally so badly affected by dry summers as pasture, the industry still needs secure access to water.
“Water will become a more critical issue in future, especially if primary industries are to double production by 2015 – which is the government aim. To do that we all need reliable water,” says Neil.
“Water security is on the list of things growers need to be aware of.”
Regional councils need to ensure kiwifruit is taken into account in its future planning for water allocation, even though the industry is not a large user of water, says Neil.
“One of the current concerns is the consent process [for water allocation] is made too onerous.
“Some growers are having to reapply for consents now and some are struggling to understand and work through some of the consents requirements. It seems like there are more and more rules.”
Federated Waikato president Chris Lewis says soil moisture levels in some parts of the province, including his own farm, still appear low – and another dry summer could be tough for farmers.
“There are parts of my farm where I’d normally be getting stuck if I tried to drive or bike through, but this winter they are still quite dry,” says Chris.
Recent dry summers have turned farmers’ thoughts to providing their own water storage but Chris says it’s not an easy option, given the amount of water required to meet the needs of stock and milking, and the lengthy and expensive consent processes involved.
The Waikato may appear to have plenty of water from rivers and streams, but water takes are already well-allocated, especially for hydro and municipal supply.
Chris says the best farmers can do at present is ensure they have plenty of feed on hand, should this summer be another dry one. “It’s a case of concentrating on what you can control.”