The National Drought Group (NDG) brings together government departments, water companies, environmental groups and others with a role to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of dry weather to coordinate action to maintain water supplies, consider water users and protect the environment.
So far in 2019 there has been significant variation in the water resources situation in most parts of England. January started very dry and despite a wet end, received only 46% of average rainfall. The rain continued into February but a dry end to the month meant England only received 84% of its average rainfall. To the surprise of many, thermometers hit record temperatures on the 25 and 26 February, with a new record being set of 21.2C at Kew Gardens, London.
Groundwater levels are refilled over the longer term so many parts of the country are in recovery and refill mode after the heatwave in 2018 – making this winter refill season important.
The recent rainfall has helped but has not been enough to bring groundwater back to a normal position for the time of year across an area stretching from Reading to Norfolk.
Rivers have responded quickly to the recent wet weather but a return to drier conditions would see them drop quickly again.
Today at the NDG, we heard that farmers across all sectors are nervous about the risk of drought in 2019 and below average rainfall will reduce production and increase costs for most of them. On the plus side, the warmer weather has been good for many, with good germination and early establishment of crops while those with livestock have been able to move onto the land reducing feed and bedding costs.
A wet end to spring would be beneficial for agriculture and the environment.
In response to the overall dry start to the year, the Environment Agency is taking the following actions:
- Working closely with farmers to offer advice and outline our flexible abstraction position, published on the NFU website, which has included extending the refill season for farm storage reservoirs.
- Communicating with water abstractors, especially farmers in East Anglia. We have worked with the NFU to provide advice to farmers at meetings and drop-in sessions. We have provided advice for farmers on spray irrigation.
- A web based trading tool, used with farmers in East Anglia last summer has been extended to other affected areas in Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and West Midlands for use from April 2019.
- Producing updated guidance on drought permits and orders for use by water companies following our experience in 2018.
- Checking the integrity of our water resources assets and completing improvement works where it is needed.
Working with environmental NGOs and site managers to optimise management of wetland sites, National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
- Working together with Defra, water companies, the National Farmers Union, Canal & Rivers Trust, environmental NGOs and other stakeholders to agree a common picture and ensure we are ready to coordinate communications when/if the risk of drought increases. Also meeting in sub groups, since the last NDG in January, to look in more detail at agricultural risks, water sector activity and environmental risks.
Despite the lack of full recovery in the water resources position from winter refill so far, most water companies confirmed to the group they would not need to bring in household water restrictions in the summer unless the spring and summer were exceptionally dry. However another dry winter in 2019/20 would cause widespread problems for summer 2020.
Water UK reported that the water resource situation across the UK is currently stable but companies are preparing for all possible situations ahead of the summer.
Specific activities to manage the dry weather were explained by water companies as:
- Water companies have, where possible, been refilling their reservoirs. While a number of reservoirs are below average levels (for the time of year) there is enough water in them to get through the summer.
- Increased leakage management.
- Moving water around networks to meet demands and rest some sources. Working with neighbouring companies to maximise bulk supply transfers.
- Capital works to increase the resilience of networks, which includes bringing unused sources online and testing water standards. Minimising risk of unplanned outages and infrastructure failure by continuing a review of assets and known issues such as algal growth.
- Ensuring that all potential sites are application-ready for drought permits or orders.
- Improving understanding of customer demand during hot, dry weather and how it can be managed in future and ensure any future assessments of forecasts for summer scenarios take account of the peak demands they experienced during the summer of 2018.
- Continuing to promote water efficiency and metering, including widening campaigns to target specific zones or groups of customers. Engaging with plans for the joint ‘Love Water’ campaign.
Conclusions and next steps:
The recent rain has helped but it is not enough to replenish groundwater back to a normal level for the time of year. Although water companies do not currently expect any restrictions this summer, the NDG members expressed concerns about pressure on farmers and the environment. NDG encouraged all members to work together to reduce the risks and impacts of dry weather and drought. We encourage sharing and trading of water as a number of members did in 2018. One area there should be closer work on is communications between all members. There are continued campaigns to promote better water efficiency and the group discussed more ambitious plans to change attitudes to wasting clean water and increase understanding of the long term risk of water scarcity if action isn’t taken.