In New Zealand, El Niño plays out as increased westerly winds, more rain in the west and drought in the east. The Crown Research Institute, NIWI, is warning that El Niño conditions are likely to hang around well into autumn.
Maniototo farmers are keeping a particularly close eye on how summer unfolds. Last season, two farmer-operated irrigation companies – Hawkdun Idaburn and Maniototo – voluntarily released extra water from their dams, so downstream ecosystems and communities would not suffer during the particularly hot summer.
Otago Regional Council (ORC) environmental operations director Scott MacLean says many urban settlements had relatively uninterrupted water supply because of the actions of these farmers. “It was a brave and respected decision which deserves recognition.”
One of the irrigation schemes receiving praise was the Maniototo Irrigation Company. It is owned by 60 farmers and operates using stored water out of the Loganburn Dam. Director Emma Crutchley says the dam started last season full, which meant the company could release more than it was required to and, in doing so, maintain river flows downstream.
“Without the extra water being released, the minimum flow 20 kilometres downstream at Waipiata would have been substantially breached for more than six weeks. The upper reaches of the river would have become very shallow and warm, causing long-term damage to the fishery and ecosystem.”
Mrs Crutchley believes community management offers the best opportunity to address water quality and quantity issues into the future.
“There are now two more major user groups in the Taieri Catchment – the Kyeburn and Sowburn companies – which have taken the place of a multitude of individual users. This increases the potential for a coordinated approach to water management, particularly as groups learn to work together and with Iwi, Fish and Game, the ORC, DOC and other such entities.”
Otago Fish and Game Council Environmental Officer Nigel Paragreen is impressed with the farmers’ actions during such a challenging season.
“Freshwater management in Otago – especially Central Otago – is all about dealing with an incredibly scarce resource. During dry periods, both people and the environment are under stress and there just isn’t enough water to alleviate the pain on all sides.
“When you hear companies have been releasing water above their consent requirements at key times to help keep minimum flows from triggering, that’s pretty impressive. It provides benefit to downstream users and ecosystems at a personal cost, which is a pretty amazing thing to do.
“Environmental management is most effective when we all work together. These situations demonstrate that.”
Beef + Lamb New Zealand extension manager Laura Lake says that irrigation and water management is an emotional topic. “Rural people live and play in these waterways alongside their urban counterparts. They value and want to protect their local ecosystems.
“These Central farmers show us how working together as a community benefits the local environment and people.”