Drought hits Poms as rivers dry up

The River Kennet is one of England’s more famous chalk streams, renowned for quality fishing, yet in the 2012 drought in ran dry in the middle of winter. Martin Salter is being interviewed by the BBC in a spot that should normally hold a metre of swift flowing water!

I REALISE that the Australian stereotype of England depicts a country of leaden grey, rainfilled skies and a population constantly whinging about the weather. Well the last bit is partly true but not for the reasons you would think.

As it happens parts of the south of my country have less rain than Sydney and a hell of a lot more people using it. And just three years after the “biblical floods” of 2014 our rivers are again running dry and the first media reports are emerging of water restrictions and impending hosepipe bans.

This comes as no surprise to those of us who fish our rivers and pay close attention to rainfall and water levels. But for some reason it always seems, despite all the sophisticated modelling and forecasts that are now available, to catch our politicians by surprise.

Figures for April – usually better known as a period of spring showers – show the month to have been the driest on record in parts of the South East and the UK as a whole has seen just 41 per cent of the average April rainfall. This followed a particularly dry winter with just 70 per cent of average rainfall for England (with far less in Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent) leaving groundwater supplies dangerously low before the summer has even begun.

The River Colne to the north west of London suffers badly from over-abstraction and its upper reaches have been one of the first casualties of the drought.

Across the Thames Water region where I live we’ve had just 7mm of rain in April, a derisory 15 per cent of the 131-year average for the month and brings the October-April period to 67 per cent of the 131-year average. Other parts of the South East are even worse.

The latest briefing from the UK Environment Agency, which warns of severe groundwater depletion, should be worrying the hell out ministers. As you guys well know the long term economic impacts of severe drought are vastly more serious than anything delivered by flash flooding.

And as you can see from these recent pictures the beautiful little River Colne to the west of London, where I learned to fish as a youngster, is now dried up in its upper reaches along with the River Ver.

A similar situation is threatening a range of streams feeding other parts of the Thames catchment and elsewhere in the region. This is not the image of England you expect is it?

Climate Change

It was probably about 15 years ago that I decided to learn a bit more about climate change. I was a serving politician at the time and needed to be abreast of current issues but I was also still very much a passionate fisherman. As anglers we are inevitably all keen observers of the weather conditions that often determine what species we will target and whether or not we are likely to have a good day’s fishing. A good friend of mine who is something of an expert in these matters summed it up perfectly for me:

“Climate change means a lot more weather, an awful lot more than weather. More winds, more floods, more droughts, more heat waves, more cold snaps; in fact more of everything and probably far more intense than anything we’ve ever experienced before.”

From my own observations of the waters and conditions that I regularly fish in the UK it’s fair to say that over the last 15 years there has certainly been a lot more “weather” to contend with. The 2007 summer floods here in the Thames Valley and elsewhere in England were unprecedented and saw fish populations moved all over the place.

2010 saw a big freeze and two dry winters in 2011 and 2012 saw the upper reaches of my local river Kennet at Marlborough dry up in January, which was absolutely unheard of outside of a severe summer heatwave. In this most temperate of climates extreme weather continued to occur. The 2014 floods saw the heaviest rainfalls in parts of the South West since the 18th century leading to the floods that featured so prominently on out TV screens at the time.

The little River Ver in Hertfordshire – once a popular trout stream – is now completely dry in places.

So how has our great nation risen to the challenge of more “weather”?

  • Have we invested in more reservoirs to store water at times of plenty against the inevitable periods of drought, which now follow a deluge with the predictability of a London bus?
  • Have we overhauled our outdated water abstraction regime to minimise the environmental damage to our precious rivers and the environments and wildlife that they support?
  • Have we introduced compulsory water metering to reduce wastage and cut demand?
  • Have we radically reformed damaging farming practices that cause excess water run off depositing millions of tonnes of silt and chemicals into the streams and watercourses?
  • Have we stopped building on the floodplains and outlawed harmful dredging that only exacerbates the risk of downstream flooding?

Have we hell!

As yet another drought beckons we find ourselves in the middle of another British general election campaign in which all parties are promising a massive increase in house building with absolutely no idea of where the water is going to come from. And, we have a water regulator that is obsessed with keeping customers’bills low rather than authorising investment in the reservoirs and long term storage options that are needed to keep the taps working and to prevent our rivers from running dry.

Here at the Angling Trust – our peak body for recreational fishing – we are working with colleagues in the wildlife sector and supportive MPs to try and get government ministers to see sense and build a system that is a whole lot more resilient to the shocks of Climate Change and the challenges presented by an expanded population requiring ever more water.

We recently organised, with WWF-UK, a summit in the House of Commons to examine possible solutions for better land and water management in order to reduce the impact of agriculture and abstraction on rivers and fisheries. With just one in five rivers in England and Wales classed in good ecological health, and future opportunities and threats arising from the plans to leave the European Union, all participants agreed that it is vital that the new government takes leadership on water and land management early in the next Parliament.

This saw a cross party group of MPs headed by former Environment Minister Richard Benyon, and backed by farming and wildlife groups, calling for a complete overhaul of the UK’s outdated water abstraction regime. This was promised back in 2011 but has been put on hold once again despite rivers beginning to dry up as politicians tour the streets looking for votes.

Further down the Colne catchment tributaries like the River Gade near Watford are already down to their bare bones.

Blueprint for Water

Last week, we chaired a Blueprint for Water meeting of Chief Executives of water companies, the water regulator OFWAT, officials from the Environment Agency and Natural England and colleagues from the 18 environmental organisations that make up the Blueprint coalition. The meeting launched our new campaign, Blueprint for PR19 (Price Review 2019).

Hardly a catchy title but for those of us campaigning for healthy water environments, the Water Price Review process is a really important moment; it is when water companies set out their plans for the next 5 years (from 2019 onwards) and negotiate with OFWAT, about how much they can charge customers, while also making a contribution to the objectives set by the Government’s environmental agencies.

There is no doubt that in the overcrowded and water stressed parts of the UK we need to take an innovative approach and scale up the things that have been shown to work at a local or regional level, such as universal metering, sustainable urban drainage systems and working with farmers to reduce pollution of rivers and water supplies.

The behaviour of people is a really important factor that we need to change. Millions of people put fat from frying pans, sanitary products and nappies down drains and toilets, which cause blockages in the system and sewage overflows. People also waste water and our per capita use puts us to shame compared to other European countries, which have more plentiful supplies.

The successful management of water requires less short-term thinking and more long-term storage.We need our ministers to work on a long-term basis taking into account climate change, population growth and substantial house building programs, which will put further stress on the system.

Us Poms have been far too complacent for far too long about water and everyone here needs to wake up to the real crisis facing our water environment and the supplies on which our economy and lives depend. This isn’t something we can shrug off while we wait for the rain clouds to arrive. Business as usual is no longer good enough.

Martin Salter is National Campaigns Coordinator for the UK’s peak recreational fishing body, The Angling Trust.

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