Canterbury farmers face a tough spring with several key irrigation rivers already on restriction after a third straight year of low groundwater levels, with some wells, streams and springs to dry up.
Poor rainfall has left alpine rivers well below their long-term averages, with the Ahuriri River in South Canterbury already on a full restriction preventing all kinds of irrigation. Other rivers, including the Rakaia, Waimakariri, Hurunui, and Rangitata, are partially restricted.
Environment Canterbury (ECAN) surface water science manager Tim Davie says the restrictions are designed to protect ecosystems and stream-life.
"There is still time for groundwater levels to recover at least to some degree if we receive some significant rain, but it is unlikely that they will recover to average levels," he says.
"We will continue to work with farmers and the rural industry, and do everything we can to help farmers get appropriate access to water leading into summer."
North Canterbury Federated Farmers president Lynda Murchison says some farmers are looking to irrigate earlier than they usually would due to the drought, putting extra pressure on the system.
"Depending on the restrictions you may see some farmers taking the option to carry less livestock, or to send their livestock, particularly lambs, away earlier rather than trying to finish them," she says.
The more irrigation-dependent areas would struggle the most, especially Selwyn and Waimakariri.
"People who have been farming in Canterbury for generations will shrug their shoulders and say, 'yep, this is what happens in Canterbury'. For those who are newer to the province and getting their first taste of good old Canterbury drought, there will be some learnings in there about how we farm."
More springs and spring-fed streams were likely to dry up around Christchurch and Selywn, while surface water irrigation would be very limited next summer, particularly in the lower Canterbury plains, ECan says.
Some groundwater abstractors would also have difficulties with wells drying up or supplying low.