Canterbury farmers will face strict water restrictions right through this winter and coming summer unless there is significant rainfall, the Canterbury Regional Council says.
The Council released a drought report today, which states 86 percent of the regions bores are at very low levels.
The Council said conditions were the worst in 30 years and if they continued, water levels might be so low that irrigators woould not be able to operate.
Council chief executive Bill Bayfield said it was hard for people to realise the extent of the problem when there had been rain.
"It has been raining in Christchurch this morning, and if you drive across the Waimakariri River at the moment it has a very good flow. But if we don't get a lot of rain in the remainder of this winter, it will be the third winter in which recharge to Canterbury's ground water will be minimal."
Mr Bayfield said if there was no rain, then going into spring and summer there would be constraints put on farmers with irrigation restrictions and bans.
"We are not in good shape with our ground water, the last time it was this bad was in the 1980s. We will be working with farmers and irrigation schemes to inform them about the circumstances.
"The August forecast is not looking great for us, even if we get a good October that will be irrigation season, a scientist put it well when he said some ground water pumps will be pumping air," Mr Bayfield said.
Mr Bayfield said farmers should consider joining irrigation schemes which relied on stored alpine water, as they would not be affected.
"It's just those drawing from groundwater and bores that will see restrictions come in pretty early in the season."
North Canterbury farmer Mike Bowler still had more than 1000 hoggets and ewes feeding off farm.
"We have had rain over the past few months but it has not made much of a difference because the ground is so dry. The top two inches are okay, but when you dig down it's very dry.
"We don't irrigate, but during the winter months we rely on the snow melt to help us out, and we haven't even had that this year," Mr Bowler said.
He said he used to see on average eight snowfalls a season, but he said climate change had changed that.
"Looking out my window now, I can see snow on the hills above Kaikoura, but it's not thick. You can still see the bush and rocks which would normally be completely covered."
Dunsandel sheep and crop farmer Nigel Barnett said Environment Canterbury's drought report just confirmed what he already knew.
"The bores are very low, they haven't recharged at all, and the Selywn River which is on our boundary has not flowed in two years, so that is a suggestion to us how bad things are."
Mr Barnett - a third generation farmer - said with lambing season just around the corner he needed good rain over the next few weeks to ensure he could feed his stock.
"There will be lots of mouths to feed and if there is going to be restrictions on irrigation it won't be easy.
"It's a worry knowing that the water levels are so low, wells are low and with no recharge they will continue to go down and down, with it so low the pumps won't be able to get it to ground," Mr Barnett said.
Irrigation New Zealand said it was vital for farmers in Canterbury to prepare for the season.
Company project manager Steven Breneger said irrigating farmers needed to ensure their equipment and irrigation schedules were up to scratch if they were to survive another dry summer.
"Farmers must make sure irrigation systems are operating as efficiently as possible because water resources are already stretched so every drop must be optimised."