Drought summit as rivers in England dry up

Caroline Spelman chairing the summit Caroline Spelman, who chaired the summit, says people should start saving water now

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Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has hosted a drought summit as parts of England struggle with groundwater levels lower than in 1976.

She invited water companies, farmers and wildlife groups to discuss the situation in south-east England, East Anglia and the East Midlands.

Ms Spelman said beforehand the meeting was to work out "preventative measures" that could be taken now.

Anglian Water said some reservoir levels are 20% lower then normal.

Anglian spokesman Kieran Nelson said: "This year the recharge period started later, it's taking longer and it's going much more slowly. And that is a concern not just for reservoirs like this one but for the boreholes that we rely on as well.

"But we need months of torrential rain, to be quite honest. It might not be a popular thing to say but lots and lots of drizzle persistently over weeks is what we're going to need to get things back to normal."

North-south drought divide

Piping water from wet north to dry south has seemed like a good idea to a long line of people.

It was last considered seriously by the Environment Agency in 2006. The title of its report posed the question: "Do we need large-scale water transfers for south-east England?"

And the text gave the answer - no.

The most radical scheme would see five parallel pipes constructed, each 1.6m in diameter, bringing water from the northern Pennines to London.

But it would cost between five and eight times more than developing extra infrastructure in the south-east, they concluded.

Mrs Spelman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme many parts of the country had suffered their second dry winter and the likelihood of a hosepipe ban was greater this time around.

She said water companies had managed to reduce leakage by 36% since the 1990s, but there was still a danger of a water shortage.

One visible sign of an impending drought is the River Kennet in Wiltshire, which has dried up completely west of Marlborough.

Angling Trust chief executive Mark Lloyd said: "It's a pile of stones you can walk across in ordinary shoes."

Many rivers in south-east England have also dried up.

The regional chairman of the National Farmers' Union, Andrew Brown, said: "We've had a bit of snow but it takes 12 inches of snow to make an inch of rain.

"People are already starting to alter their cropping procedure. I was talking to a farmer at the end of last week who said he was going to plant 20% fewer root and vegetable crops. Now that means for him a £50,000 hit. So it's a big big concern."

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) called the summit to discuss what measures are being implemented to tackle drought and to decide what actions need to be taken to mitigate against its impact in the future.

Andrew Brown of the National Farmers Union on how the drought will hit crops

Last year the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, suggested in his column in the Daily Telegraph that canals and aqueducts be built to carry water from the north of England, which tends to be wetter.

He was the latest in a series of politicians and policy-makers who have suggested similar schemes.

Scotland has had its wettest winter for a century but Mrs Spelman told Today: "People often say 'well why don't you just build a pipeline from the North West to the South East?'. But it isn't that simple because water is heavy and costly to transport."

"But one of the things we will talk about at the summit today is improved connectivity between water companies as part of improving our resilience in the face of these conditions."

The wildlife charity WWF has accused the government of dragging its heels.

WWF's freshwater spokesperson, Rose Timlett, said: "This is a drought we've seen coming. Rivers ...have been dry since September 2011.

BBC forecaster Sarah Keith-Lucas on whether the dry conditions are likely to persist

"Back then everyone agreed we would be in a serious drought situation if we had another dry winter, but not much has been done about it."

She said the government's White Paper, which was published in December, had some good ideas, such as licences to remove water, but these proposals might not be implemented for years.

The WWF supports water metering and other measures to cut water wastage.

But Mrs Spelman told Today: "Water meters can be helpful, particularly for households with a small number of occupants or a reduced income.

"But the most important is to save water. Everybody knows how to save water."

Water company figures show that London and the Thames Valley have received below-average rainfall for 18 of the last 23 months.

The amount of water in the River Lee, which runs through Hertfordshire and north east London, is only 24% of its usual level while the Kennet is only 31% of its average level.

Southern Water has applied for a drought permit to enable it to restock Bewl Water reservoir in Kent, which is only 41% full.

If the Environment Agency grants the permit it would also allow the company to take more water from the River Medway.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Those people who think that rainfall has not been sparse in recent years down here in the South need think again. I have been keeping weather records for my area for many years and can testify that the last 2-3 years have been very dry. True its not been sunny and hot but endless days of cloudy dry weather does not fill reservoirs so the story today is not a hyped myth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Water, unlike gas and electricity, is very expensive to move because it's heavy and can't be compressed. A national water grid would be terrifyingly expensive to build (tens of thousands of miles of very large, underground pipes) and very costly to run as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    This is not new. We've been talking about it for as long as I can remember. We've a plentiful supply of water in this country from rain. The problem is that we just don't do enough to conserve it. Build more reservoirs, extend those we already have, but above all put in a national water grid. Expensive, yes, but if we'd done it 50 years ago when we should have it would have cost a fraction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    The problem is not the amount of water. It is the way we conserve and manage it. I lived in Madrid in 2005, one of the worst droughts in Spain for many years. They still managed to have the sprinklers running in the parks through the night because they plan for low water periods. What is wrong with the UK, that we can't see further than the end of our noses?

    p.s. well said Howesyourview!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Here in Norfolk, parts of which have a high risk of drought, we are told thousands of new houses are needed, and that no more water can be extracted from the rivers. This begs the question where will the water needed for said houses come from? Perhaps serious consideration needs to be given to building houses were the water supply is plentiful.


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