The importance of water

The latest column from CLA East Director Cath Crowther
Cath Crowther - new enews.jpg

The National Drought Group, made up of senior decision makers from the Environment Agency, government, water companies and key representative groups, including the CLA, met recently to agree further steps to help manage the current drought.

The meeting acknowledged that this has been the driest summer for 50 years, and the driest ever recorded for parts of eastern England. The prolonged hot dry weather, which led to widespread wildfires and extremely challenging conditions for farming, has led to exceptionally low river flows and low groundwater levels and a decline in reservoir levels with some well below average for the time of year.

There has also been a very large increase in demand for water and significant environmental impacts, with rivers and ponds drying out and fish and other wildlife dying or in distress.

Large parts of the country are now in drought status including East Anglia. The recent rainfall in some areas is not enough to replenish rivers, groundwater or reservoirs to normal levels. That will require a return to sustained average or above average rainfall over the coming months. Until – and unless – that happens, many areas will remain in drought.

The group agreed that sufficient rainfall over the autumn and winter would replenish rivers, lakes, groundwaters and reservoirs to normal levels by the spring; but that planning should begin now, on a precautionary basis, on how best to manage any water shortfalls that might arise in 2023 in the event of a dry autumn and/or winter.

Some of the measures from the Environment Agency include:

  • Monitoring and predicting river flows and groundwater levels, increasing the number of checks in important locations.
  • Managing water users’ abstraction licences to balance the needs of water companies, other abstractors and the natural environment.
  • Carrying out irrigation patrols and other compliance checks to ensure abstractors are complying with licence restrictions.
  • Responding to incidents caused by low river flows and high temperatures, including fish rescues and wildfires.
  • Operating its water transfer schemes to maintain river flows and groundwater levels to support wildlife and facilitate abstraction by water companies for public supply.
  • Supporting farmers and growers, including by helping them continue to access water while balancing their needs with that of the public water supply, other abstractors and the environment; and by providing advice and guidance.
  • Actively managing river levels and conserving water on the Thames and other rivers for which the EA is the navigation authority on behalf of river users and abstractors.

It is reassuring that the National Drought Group will be accelerating action to ensure long-term water security and continuing to carefully monitor water resources over the coming months to ensure that the needs of farmers, rural industries, and nature remain secure.

On-farm reservoirs will be a crucial piece of the water resilience jigsaw, but they take time to build and require considerable capital. We urge Defra and its agencies as well as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to come up with a way of aligning funding, planning permission and abstraction decisions so that our members have the certainty and pace they need to make this investment. The frequent reviews of abstraction licences, which is proposed when licencing moves into the Environmental Permitting Regime in 2023, together with the lack of compensation where licences are revoked or amended introduced by the Environment Act, also disincentivise reservoir construction.

Although the government has commented that essential supplies are safe, we remain concerned that water for agriculture is not included as an essential supply. Secure water for food is critical to ensure the produce British consumers expect will be on supermarket shelves next year.

Last year we released the CLA Water Strategy – a vision for the water environment to 2030. The document identifies actions for water in three sections – drought and water availability, a thriving water environment and flood resilience. They are all inextricably linked and have relevance to the wider environment. None can be seen isolation. I would highly recommend you taking a look at this report, which can be found on the CLA website.