Jun 24, 2017 by

Freedom-of-information data reveals threat of drought that would devastate wildlife, with government slow to act on water management

Kayakers on the River Wye in Herefordshire, where a drought has caused low water levels that threaten this year’s salmon run.
Kayakers on the River Wye in Herefordshire, where a drought has caused low water levels that threaten this year’s salmon run. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt for the Guardian

A quarter of England’s rivers are at risk of running dry, with devastating consequences for wildlife, according to data obtained by WWF under freedom of information rules.

Fish are most obviously affected when rivers slow to a trickle, particularly those that migrate upstream such as salmon, trout, eels and lampreys. But animals such as water voles are also harmed, as they are unable to escape predators by fleeing into rivers to reach underwater entrances to their burrows. Birds such as kingfishers, sandpipers and dippers also suffer, as the insects and small fish they feed on die out.

The rules governing how much water can be taken from rivers have not been updated for more than half a century and take no account of the water needed to sustain the ecological health of rivers. The government published proposed reforms in 2011 and had legislation drawn up early in 2017, but did not find parliamentary time to act.

The driest October-to-March period for 20 years this year was followed by an extremely dry April and below average rainfall in May, and has left much of Britain with low river and groundwater levels and facing the possibility of drought. The information released to WWF by the Environment Agency shows that in such conditions 23% of England’s rivers could run dry. Further data shows that more than 550 rivers and lakes are in a poor ecological state because too much water is being taken from them.

Hollowell reservoir, Northamptonshire, during a 2014 drought.
Hollowell reservoir, Northamptonshire, during a 2014 drought. Photograph: Paul Marriott/Alamy Stock Photo

“The south-east of England received less rainfall over the winter than Menorca. If we have a dry summer, our green and pleasant land could become as parched as some of the Mediterranean,” said Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF. “This may sound attractive for sun-seekers, but it would be disastrous for wildlife. But this can be avoided if we update the outdated way we manage the demand on our country’s limited water supplies.”

Many rivers around England have already suffered the effects of over-abstraction of water for agriculture and industry. Peter King, from the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust in Sussex said: “Twenty years ago you could swim along the Bevern stream – now you can literally walk across it all year round, as the water levels of the river Ouse have really gone down a lot. The problem is that the rivers have been so badly damaged over the past 50 years that they’re now knackered.” He said this also harmed the local economy: “People who visited for canoeing, wildlife and fishing are not visiting anymore.”

England hosts most of the world’s chalk streams but these are particularly vulnerable and half are now at risk of drying up, according to WWF. One is the river Chess, which flows through Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Paul Jennings, a local farmer and chairman of the River Chess Association, said: “In the last six years, it has been dry 50% of the time, and this has had devastating effects on the local people.”

In September 2015, he said, thousands of fish were stranded in small pockets of water when the rest of the river dried up. The local community tried to rescue the fish by collecting them in buckets and moving them downstream, but were unsuccessful.

Many rivers also suffer from sewage and agricultural pollution, with most rivers in England failing to meet EU ecological standards. Simon Ffennell, a horticulturalist who has lived on Hampshire’s river Itchen all his life, said: “The most noticeable change is the way that the sunny weather in spring combines with the high levels of phosphate and nitrate that is in the river and creates particular algae that is unfortunately smothering the river bed.”

The problem of over-abstraction of water is exacerbated by the fact that demand for water can double during spells of dry and hot weather, as crops and gardens need more water and people take more showers.

The Guardian revealed in May that, despite 20% of all piped water being lost to leaks, the level of leakage has not fallen for at least four years. In June, Thames Water was fined a maximum £8.5m for missing its leak reduction targets. Water waste rises to a third of all water taken from the natural environment when losses in treatment plants and in homes and businesses are included.

The government’s official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), warned in 2016 that water shortages were one of the most serious impacts of global warming in Britain, with even modest temperature rises leading to “severe” water shortages in England.

Prof Ian Barker, from Water Policy International and an adviser to the OECD, said: “As the climate becomes more uncertain and extreme, and demand for water continues to rise, we need to find a better way to manage scarce water resources. But [UK] proposals to reform water management have been shelved.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We recognise the need to improve water management. That is why we are committed to reforming abstraction licensing into a simplified, modern system that is fairer and more resilient.”

She said the Environment Agency had made significant changes to more than 250 abstraction licences since 2008, saving 27bn litres of water a year being removed from the environment, enough to supply half a million people with water for one year.

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