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Wellington has '20 days of water left' in drought

Published: 8:27AM Wednesday March 13, 2013 Source: Fairfax

The Wellington region's water supply is at 'crisis' level, while even the typically wet West Coast is experiencing a big dry as New Zealand's summer drought extends.

Rural communities throughout the North Island are already reeling from extremely dry conditions. The Government has declared Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay as drought zones. Manawatu-Rangitikei, Wairarapa and Taranaki are set to follow.

Nigel Wilson, who chairs the Wellington region's committee in charge of water supply, said 20 days of water was about all that's left for the people of Wellington, Hutt Valley and Porirua if the heavens did not open soon

The region has had no significant rain since February 4, while Wellington City has not had a drop for a month, the MetService said.

Almost all the available water in the region's rivers has been exhausted, prompting the council to activate an emergency consent yesterday, which allows it to take an additional 17 million litres or so each day from the Hutt River.

That will buy the council an extra 10 days before it has to tap into its emergency supply in the Stuart Macaskill storage lakes at Te Marua, north of Upper Hutt.

But because only one of those lakes was full at present, there would be only 10 days more after that before the 1900m-litre reserve was sucked dry, Wilson said.

"So on day 21, we'll all be moving to Nelson or Hokitika for a drink of water."

Wellington is not officially in drought. But when asked yesterday how far away that was, Wilson was blunt. "A couple more weeks and it's going to be all on another three weeks and the cupboard will be bare."

Tapping into smaller reservoirs around the region was an option the council could look at after that.

The flow in the Hutt River is normally about 5000 litres a second at this time of year, but that dropped to 1300 litres last week.

The regional council can take water from the river till it reaches a minimum flow of 600 litres a second. But the emergency consent reduces that minimum to 400 litres, providing up to 17 million extra litres a day.

MetService forecaster Brooke Lockhart said there was an increased chance of showers across the Wellington region for a few days from Sunday.

But the forecast was uncertain at this stage, because it depended on what path Tropical Cyclone Sandra took as it headed south towards the Tasman Sea.

Wilson encouraged Wellingtonians to "be conscious, conserve, and we'll get through it all. The bottom line is, if you don't have to use it, then don't.

"People should shower with a friend, if that's an option . . . or put a brick in the toilet.

"If you know anyone who's particularly adept at rain dances, then encourage them to get out there and do what they do."

Dry West Coast

On the South Island's West Coast, farmers and residents find themselves in the grip of the region's worst dry spell in decades.

It has been five weeks since rain has fallen, wells are running dry and herds of dairy cows have stopped milking nearly three months early.

Farmers in the worst-affected areas say they have not seen conditions like it in more than 40 years and it could cost them collectively about $20 million.

Later this week they will meet to discuss with officials whether the Government should declare the area a drought zone.

"It's just unheard of," Federated Farmers West Coast president Katie Milne said yesterday. "We are all worried, but it's so unusual.

"No-one knows what's going on because we are just not used to having to deal with it.

"Guys I'm talking to who have lived in the area all their lives are saying it's the driest they've ever seen."

The Ministry for Primary Industries said yesterday it had also been monitoring conditions on the West Coast. Niwa statistics show February was one of the driest on record for Greymouth, Hokitika, Reefton and Westport, with each recording between 15 and 35 per cent of their normal rainfall for the month.

Towns on the West Coast normally record more than 2 metres of rain each year.

Milne said rain had not fallen since February 4 in many areas, and farmers, government officials and other agencies would meet on Friday to discuss whether the area should be declared a drought zone.

Federated Farmers West Coast dairy spokesman Richard Reynolds said about half of the area's 400 herds were struggling. Lost production and high feed costs could set each of them back about $100,000 if it did not rain soon.

Westport, Karamea and the Grey Valley were the worst-affected areas, he said.

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