‘Big dry’ will only get bigger, saving water crucial; NRC

7 Feb 2020, 2:30 PM

With tough new water restrictions being imposed in the Far North and no end in sight to Northland’s increasingly parched conditions, local authorities are urging those who are not already doing so to conserve what water they can, wherever they can.

The Northland Regional Council (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, the council’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 – following 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.)

Mr Dall said today 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.”

Mr Dall says a variety of water saving tips are available online at www.bewaterwise.org.nz and with the region’s water resources under growing pressure by the day, everyone needed to play their part.

As well as the individual actions people could take, Mr Dall says 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 which ban all outdoor water use and mean water can only be used for essential drinking, cooking and washing.

The Kaipara District Council (KDC) had done exactly that; independently imposing ‘Level 4’ (the toughest) restrictions on users of its Dargaville scheme (which includes Baylys Beach) late last month.

Of the Kaipara council’s other four community water schemes, Ruawai was currently under KDC-imposed ‘Level 2’ (no sprinkler) restrictions, while those in Mangawhai, Maungaturoto and Glinks Gully were being urged to use water sensibly.

Further north, the FNDC had last month told the NRC it was attempting to reduce public water supply usage by 25 percent, including water it took for Kaikohe and Kaitaia townships.

Mr Dall says unfortunately the required savings had failed to eventuate (and in some cases water usage in the Far North had actually increased) and on 31 January the FNDC had effectively been left with no choice but to impose the Level 4 restrictions it subsequently had.

The actual mechanism for those restrictions had been a ‘water shortage direction’ the NRC had earlier issued its Far North counterpart.

A ‘water shortage direction’ allows a resource consent holder (in this case the FNDC) to legally keep taking the most urgently-needed water beyond the limits of its consent, provided it meets extra conditions (typically a reduction in non-urgent use within a certain timeframe) 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.

As of 2pm today, the FNDC also had Level 3 restrictions (no hoses or sprinklers) in place for public supplies at Opononi/Omapere, at Omanaia/Rawene, at Waitangi/Pahia/Opua and at Kawakawa/Moerewa.  Level 2 restrictions (no sprinklers) are in place at Kerikeri/Waipapa and at Okaihau.

Meanwhile, Mr Dall says as of today he understood the Whangarei District Council was still at Level 1 (no formal restrictions in place) as – while it was still urging people to use water sensibly – its water supplies were currently in better shape than its counterparts to the north and south.

He says current water restrictions for public water supplies operated by Northland’s three district councils are available on www.bewaterwise.org.nz

Mr Dall says with forecasters predicting it could still be months before the region received decent rain, the regional council had some time ago stepped-up its own monitoring to gauge flow rates in critical rivers and streams and was also encouraging people to check on 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.”

Mr Dall says members of the council’s hydrology team had significantly boosted the numbers of rivers they would usually visit to gauge at this time of year and had collectively been working long hours in hot and trying conditions for many weeks to ensure they had the most up-to-date data and figures to work with.

“In the past several weeks alone, our staff have carried out comprehensive low flow gauging about 120 times at numerous sites region-wide.”

Mr Dall says the NRC is also analysing district councils’ daily water use to make its own important decisions, with regional council staff keeping a close eye on the state of catchments right across the region, all of which are under increasing pressure to a greater or lesser extent – in the current conditions.