UK water environment in ‘critical state’ following drought

River flows have dropped dangerously low while reservoir levels have also declined
08 September 2022 , By Steve Smethurst

Severity of drought leads to calls for government to introduce water-saving policies and water companies to roll-out smart water meters.

The National River Flow Archive (NFLA) has confirmed that the sustained hot, dry conditions in July caused river flows to recede to “exceptionally low” levels across the country.

The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) also highlighted the discharging of wastewater pollutants, such as phosphates, nitrates, pharmaceuticals and organic chemicals from personal care products, into rivers. As river flows reduce, these pollutants and nutrients become more concentrated, increasing stress on the freshwater wildlife.

Similarly, the dangers of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) blooms are greatly increased during summer drought periods, which can produce high concentrations of toxins that pose health risks to dogs, cattle and humans.

The NFLA added that reservoir levels had also declined, resulting in the lowest end-of-July stocks on record (from 1990) for England & Wales. The NFLA said it would require ‘exceptional’ late summer/early autumn rainfall to return to normal conditions.

Dr Nathan Richardson, Head of Policy and Strategy at the independent NGO Waterwise, said: “We know the frequency and severity of droughts and other extreme weather events is going to increase with climate change. In England, we face a shortfall of 3.5 billion litres a day if we want enough water for people, businesses and the environment. 

“Waterwise wants the government to introduce water-saving policies such as mandatory water-efficiency labelling of products such as washing machines and dishwashers. We also need water companies to roll-out smart water meters and step up efforts to find and fix leaks, not only in their networks but also in supplied properties.”

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, said: “It is a stark reminder that the climate emergency is real and that we need to tackle it urgently. The good news is that we know the solution: reduce the demand for water – by fixing leaks, cutting the amount we each use, making homes and appliances more water-efficient and increasing supply by building more reservoirs, desalination plants and water transfer schemes. Also, by recycling and reusing water.”

The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) investment of £38 million towards ‘state-of-the-art’ hydrological measuring equipment and digital technology isn’t enough

If there’s a glimmer of good news it’s the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) investment of £38 million towards a Floods and Droughts Research Infrastructure (FDRI). This UK-wide network of ‘state-of-the-art’ hydrological measuring equipment and digital technology will “provide the science needed to enable communities and businesses to become more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather events” from next year.

​But this isn’t enough, said Ellie Ward, Policy and Information Coordinator at Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of 65 environment and wildlife organisations. She said: “Our water environment is in a critical state – fragmented, polluted and degraded, with not a single waterbody deemed to be in good overall health. Over 10% of freshwater and wetland species are threatened with extinction in the UK.

“Unless we take ambitious, holistic action to build resilience, we put nature and people at risk of running out of water. Government, Ofwat, and water companies must lead the way.”


Image credit: Shutterstock

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