Right now there is a perfect storm for some farmers, but no rain. Drought and commodity prices are hitting hard and creating stress. This is not a new experience, but if drought in particular becomes the new normal, pressure on water resources will increase. It is a challenge to everyone but particularly in Canterbury and particularly for dairy farmers reliant on irrigation. Recently the storage dams also started to fail.
Opuha Dam reservoir is in trouble, much of it is dry. The catchment hasn’t seen significant rain for months, and in the words of Opuha Water Limited who manage the reservoir, “we have reached the bottom of the bucket.” In the 17 years since it was created, it has never been so dry. It’s so dry that it’s stopped working.
Irrigation NZ claims that this is why we should sink more money into more water storage dams, so that our farmers always have access to the water they need to run their businesses, even in the driest of seasons. It applauds the development of the Klondyke Storage Pond, a project announced by Rangitata Diversion Race Management on the same day that the Opuha reservoir shut down.
New Zealand needs to think smarter about the way we manage our water, not bigger. What we should be doing is looking at a solution that reduces the need for an ambulance in the first place. Let’s look at the pressures on water resources and come up with a sustainable way to manage land and water use and farms for the future. Let’s attempt to help our farms be drought-proof.
Climate change is likely to make of droughts more frequent and serious, and with increasing numbers of dairy cows per hectare on the region’s farms, we have created a perfect storm, where the demand for water is ever-increasing but less likely to occur naturally. In just 11 years, the number of dairy cows in the Canterbury region has risen from 542,000 to 1,304,000 – a rise of some 140 per cent. This increase has meant water storage has been necessary to keep up with the thirst of those extras mouths and the grass to feed them. Large scale water storage reduces flows in rivers putting the habitat of braided river birds and fish at risk and reduces opportunities for fishing and kayaking, and yet has proven itself as an unsustainable way to overcome the effects of increasing drought. So why promote an intensive farming model that demands more and more water?
Irrigation has made the conversion to and intensification of dairy farming easier – in the short term. But in the long term, it forces farmers to become reliant on irrigation schemes, investing big money in irrigators and more stock that they can’t keep alive without substantial irrigation, hence the need for water becomes more important. It’s a vicious cycle.
There are things we can do. A recent Listener article talks to those who have invested in alternative feed stocks on their farms that use less water such as lucerne and subterranean clover. These farmers have adapted their farming practices to the environment, rather than adapting the environment to suit their farms.
We should also be slowing down the intensification of farming so that farmers are able to operate with the water resources available to them now and in the future. Land uses that demand a lot of water such as dairying won’t be sustainable as droughts become more common.
Both of these measures aim to adapt farms to increasing drought, not increasing the water demand. If we don’t, we run the risk of more water resources hitting the bottom of the bucket.