2001 Drought

Waimea Water
The ‘Big Dry’

The 2001 drought was the most severe drought our region experienced in 60 years. Different phrases were used to describe it, including a shortage or a crisis. Early on it was ‘water fears.’ In the end, the drought stuck and it became known as the ‘Big Dry’ and it affected everyone in the region from Nelson to Richmond to Motueka to Golden Bay.

dry river

Riverbeds dried up. Saltwater threatened the bores in the lower Waimea River. Stories about the scarcity of rain appeared almost daily in newspapers. Councils met to assess the water supply risks and the rationing requirements. Green pastures were brown with no grass in sight. Dairy farm stock had to be dried off months early, with cattle and sheep sold below cost to cover lost revenue. Permitted users, including irrigators across the Waimea Plains, had been reduced to 40 percent of their allowed take.

Financial impact on the region’s economy

The financial impact was brutal. Export kiwifruit crop, decimated in quantity and size, dropped from 3.5 million trays to overseas buyers in 2000 to only 1.5 million trays in 2001. Richard Brown, then president of Nelson-Marlborough Kiwifruit Growers, was desperate. “Most of the fruit has been completely written off,” he said.

Sheep and beef farmers had to pay supplementary costs of feed while there were lower ewe fertility rates. One Gibbs Valley farmer said he would be down by 25 percent on stock and the lower sheep count meant he would lose $24,000 on stock sales alone. Feed prices rose significantly throughout the summer and autumn, costing farmers dearly.

The cost to businesses was in the millions. In March, dairy farmers across the Tasman region were already reporting losses of at least $2 million in payouts. The rain wouldn’t come for another eight weeks, and even then it was only a minor respite before a very dry winter. By January, some dairy farmers were already drying off their cows.

Irrigators on the Waimea Plains, orchards in Motueka, farmers throughout Takaka and Golden Bay, residents in both Nelson and Richmond, and urban businesses all felt the severe shortages of water impact their lives and livelihoods.

Other businesses were not immune. Tasman’s three major water users – Enza, Alliance, and Nelson Pine Industries – had all voluntarily reduced their water use to contribute to the crisis, one by half.


It started in November 2000 when the month produced the lowest rainfall in 10 years at most TDC recording stations. River levels were already starting to fall and some were near drought levels. Then on December 10 and 11, 45mm fell over the region. It was the last rain, apart from a few sprinkles, for five months.

In April, NIWA declared the ‘Big Dry’ Nelson’s worst drought on record. By the end of that month, only 94mm of rain had fallen since the start of the year, the lowest total on record since 1939. And while the drought itself was technically over in mid-May with a decent deluge, winter continued to be parched. In July the region saw only 7.7mm of rain, another low, the lowest on record for that month since 1943.

Effects on residents, including freshwater supplies

Throughout the first half of the year, land was so dry and posed an extreme fire risk. Eventually there was a total rural fire ban in most areas of the top of the South. The Department of Conservation closed many popular walking tracks, including the Abel Tasman National Park Track, the Cable Bay Walkway, and the Queen Charlotte Track. Both councils closed walking tracks throughout their districts as well. The extreme fire risk caused forestry operations to slow, with work stoppages and forests off-limits for felling.

Residential neighbourhoods had a complete ban on any garden watering, the first in 10 years, and TDC stopped watering its own sports grounds, playgrounds, and reserves from early March.

Most concerning, the freshwater supply was at risk. In mid-March, Tasman District Council (TDC) started discussing options to stop the saltwater from pooling in beds in the lower reaches of the dry Waimea River riverbed where it could penetrate the bores. With high tides expected in spring only weeks away, the risk of salt water intrusion was severe. Three urban supply wells were shut down and two of these eventually decommissioned.

Click here for more information on saltwater intrusion.

The rain comes

The ‘Big Dry’ ended with a steady downpour on 11 and 12 May. The Metservice recorded 22.1mm of rain in Nelson, the Lee Valley had 92mm, Wairoa 60mm, and the Maitai Valley 65mm. It wasn’t yet enough to prepare the region for the following summer, however. Dry weather continued through much of winter when further restrictions were considered. Even in July, the aquifer levels were dangerously low and the river flows of great concern.

The threat remained real right into October when the Nelson Mail published an editorial titled, “A Regional Problem.” In it, the paper stated:

“The whole region’s livelihood depends on the health of the primary sector, and that in turn depends on secure water supply. Even if residents are happy coping with the inconvenience of rationing during droughts, they shouldn’t be so accepting of the potential economic damage if the region has to deal with continuing serious dry spells and can’t provide enough water for new industry.”

Later in October the drought fears were eased and the tough year was over with sustained rain. There was no repeated drought the following summer, but there was impetus to ensure the region wouldn’t go through the same pain again.