The Bay of Plenty Regional Council is working hard to collaborate with primary industries in the region to plan how they can use water wisely as dry conditions follow last summer’s drought, which saw some streams reach their lowest-ever recorded level.
BOPRC water shortage event manager Steve Pickles is putting out a call early to all water users – including dairy farming and horticulture sectors and municipal users – because some water management areas haven’t fully recovered from last summer’s drought due to low rainfall this year. “Last summer 2019/2020 saw some of the lowest-ever recorded rainfall and stream flows in BOP. That was from about 30 years’ worth of data.”
In March the Government notified a drought across the North Island and top of the South Island. And while Covid-19 limited BOPRC’s ability to monitor waterways, Steve says what was seen showed very low stream flows, increased algal growth but no reports of significant adverse effects. “We were really close to implementing water take restrictions last summer, which would have affected horticulture and agriculture in particular. So it’s really important we are prepared for future restrictions and start thinking about how we can manage operations with much lower water use.”
Year-to-date rainfall across the region is 60-80 per cent of normal for the calendar year. “Some areas are not far from having half their normal rainfall,” says Steve. NIWA forecasts a developing La Niña pattern for late-spring/early-summer, which generally brings a higher chance of rainfall and higher temperatures.
In March, BOPRC adopted and implemented a Water Shortage Standard Operating Procedure, which is now being refined. “We developed this based on issuing Water Shortage Directions – allowed for under the Resource Management Act – as we’d never had a policy in place before and this reflects up until now we haven’t really had low streams flows for such an extended time in our region.
“The SOP has three levels: Level 1 is watching; Level 2 is where we’ve got potential triggers with low flow streams and potentially high demand, making the perfect storm; Level 3, which we didn’t quite get to last summer, is issuing WSDs.”
Currently, the BOP is at Level 1. The first BOPRC Situation Report for 2020/2021 states western parts of the region are already very dry compared to normal or approaching lowest-ever recorded flows for this time of year, however rivers are still above management flow levels.
Used only in exceptional circumstances, an WSD puts temporary extra water use restrictions in place to protect waterways from harm. Steve says an WSD can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. “It’s not prescriptive – council could adopt it in areas, streams or catchments or larger parts of the BOP. Also, the restriction could involve staggered timing for water takes, a reduction in the amount or rate of take, or purposes for which people take water.”
BOPRC manages more than 1400 consents for water takes in the BOP. Steve says with the BOP’s current low-flow streams and rainfall deficits “the signals are while we could get a bit more rain than last year, there still could be a real problem”.
Coupled with that – the region has horticultural crops that need water now. Having sufficient soil moisture content now is important for fruit sizing, is beneficial for vine health and allows transfer of fertiliser and nutrition into and through soil.
So his council’s focus is to encourage land users to plan their water use to be better prepared. “Think about what sort of preparation you can do and what sort of advice you can gain from your industry to try to minimise potential impacts of any restrictions.”
Steve says on-farm and on-orchard actions can be taken, plus working with other water users in the same catchments. Horticulture NZ’s BOP/Gisborne environmental policy advisor Scott Mahupuku says most growers have had some of the driest weather they’ve seen in 30-40 years. “Growers are aware of efficient water use, and should have action plans in place for dry weather/drought events. And, their action plans should be reviewed now – not when an event is happening.”
Scott says it’s also key both farmers and growers understand their water consent conditions, and their region’s water use rules. “One plus for us is regional councils and unitary districts are engaging with industry really early. This is good because it means we can work together.”
Steve also recommends land-users get as much data on their water use as possible. “It’s a regulatory requirement via government that all water consents taking more than 5L/second are metered and records supplied to council. The latest water reform will require these same water users, in coming years, to telemeter that data. Already many farmers and growers are telemetering data as there’s value in it for them; they use it to make better decisions.
“But for BOPRC, as an organisation, to manage the resource better and for industry to step in and do some self-management for themselves, having good quality water data is so important. For example, if we wanted to put restrictions on a certain stream and there was five landowners taking water – the approach we can take at this stage is to stop takes. But potentially those landowners could work together to share the resource.”
Steve says BOPRC has a toolbox it can use to reduce water use – and stopping takes is not something it wants to do. “We want to do everything we can, by working with all primary industries, to avoid that. Our message to all industries is: the earlier you can get landowners to use telemetry, the better.”
Scott says the horticulture industry has, in the last 20 years, been moving to more efficient use of water. “Using technology is a driver for water users, not just around environmental goals but cost factors through efficient water use.”
Steve says BOPRC has seen a marked increase in land use consents to install groundwater bores. And water storage is fast becoming a conversation that more primary producers are having.
Scott says most new horticultural developments will have water storage. “Growers who may face changes are those with older orchards with no storage but have changed crop type, variety or expanded.”
What the BOP needs now is long, sustainable regular amounts of rainfall to start to replenish stream base flows, says Steve. “People see a bit of rain and think: ‘Sweet, the problem is over’. Let me be clear – we’re not saying all of our aquifers are drying up. That is not happening. But over a long period of time all these factors can start to show effects.
“Collaboratively, if we can all work together, there will be solutions.”