Water resource situation and actions assessed for Summer 2019
Published: 05 Feb 2019

The National Drought Group (NDG) met on 21 January 2019 chaired by Harvey Bradshaw, Executive Director at the Environment Agency, to assess the water resource situation actions being taken to reduce risk for summer 2019. 

The NDG brings together Government departments, water companies, environmental groups and others. The role is to prepare and mitigate the impacts of dry weather, to co-ordinate action to maintain water supplies, consider water users and protect the environment. 

Current situation and prospects

Wet weather in November and December 2018 ended a six month below average rainfall in England, which brought relief for many parts of England. 

Despite this improvement and improved water resources compared to last year, it has not returned England to its average. 

January 2019 received just 4% of the expected rainfall in the first 15 days of the month, resulting in most river flows being very low for the time of year. There are still several reservoirs below normal in central England.

The Met Office three month outlook shows a slightly higher chance of drier weather during January to March. If this is so, water available for spray irrigation by farmers may be limited during the summer.

If dry weather continues it will potentially have a significant impact on wetlands and the wildlife they support, including returning migratory birds.

The Environment Agency is taking the following action:

  • moving megalitres of water around, with the plan to move a total of 7965 million litres in January;
  • close monitoring to assess the conditions of rivers affected by sustained low flows and prepare for potential environmental incidents;
  • supporting farmers by updating the Environment Agency's position on flexible abstraction for farmers;
  • reviewing guidance for water company drought plans and incorporating lessons learnt over last summer;
  • working flexibly with environmental NGOs and site managers to optimise management of wetland sites to ensure there is enough water on site or providing advice on possible other sources of water. 

The NDG discussed opportunities to work collaboratively on these actions, the possible implications of further dry weather and how issues from EU Exit may impact on water resources for later in the year.

The Water Sector

Extreme weather in 2018 put pressure on the sector to test their resilience and drought plans. Water UK has reported on the actions the water sector has taken to protect water supplies and reduce longer term drought risk. The Environment Agency and Defra welcomed this activity and clarity. 

Most water companies are in a better position than at the start of 2018 but several companies still have reservoirs and/or groundwater below average levels.

The companies reassured the NDG they are taking necessary actions such as changing how they operate their sources of water, spending more on tackling leakage, promoting water efficiency and offering additional services to customers.

Water companies set out specific activities including:

  • Yorkshire Water drought permits to give extra flexibility to ensure the company is prepared for the summer;
  • Severn Trent Water is considering drought permits and have been active with their customer communications;
  • Anglian Water is working with the Environment Agency and the National Farmers Union to identify opportunities to share water in the summer;
  • United Utilities is embedding learning from the dry weather in 2018 into its operations.

Last year the Environment Agency issued six drought permits, reviewing each application to ensure the environment was not put at risk. Defra and the Environment Agency urged water companies to act early in making any future applications as a fair assessment of the water needs of people, industry, and the environment takes time, as well as preparing for EU exit.

Agriculture

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has updated members on the dry start to the year and possible risks for the summer. Their main focus has been the East of England as the region has not shown strong signs of recovery yet. 

The Environment Agency's flexible approach to abstraction for farmers will be updated shortly to include extending the refill season into April for winter storage reservoirs.

Conclusions and next steps

The NDG cautiously welcomed the recovery of water resources in many parts of England but acknowledged the ongoing dry weather may put pressure on farmers and the environment in the spring. 

Water companies were positive that even if the dry weather continues over the coming months, they would not need to introduce any restrictions this summer. Water companies reassured the group that they are not being complacent, they continue to tackle leakage, review their operations and communicate with customers. 

In the short to medium term, farmers and the environment face the biggest risks and those involved need to take action now to prepare for what could be a difficult summer. 

"Through the NDG, members will need to work together to act early and mitigate these risks, the potential challenges from a cold snap and the changes from EU Exit".

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