Some of Britain’s best-loved holiday destinations are facing drought restrictions this summer following the driest February in 30 years.
Devon, Cornwall and East Anglia remain under official drought conditions having been declared to be in drought last August, with experts tellingi they were “very nervous” about what the months ahead could mean for Britain’s rivers in those areas.
A wet autumn and early winter meant that nine other regions declared to be in drought last summer had that status lifted, with reservoirs and groundwater levels replenished. However, that has not been the case for the regions of East Anglia, Devon and Cornwall.
Mark Owen, head of fisheries at the Angling Trust and a member of the National Drought Group told ithe conditions made him “very nervous”.
Last month, the National Drought Group warned that England was “one hot, dry spell” from returning to drought. That was before February was declared the driest since 1993.
Overall, the UK saw just 45 per cent of its average rainfall for the month, at 43.4mm, with only the western Highlands receiving their usual amount of precipitation. Essex was the driest county, receiving 8 per cent of its average February rainfall.
Data from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology shows that river flows across Great Britain are below normal, notably low or extremely low.
The Met Office’s three-month outlook says there is an elevated chance of a dry March to May, putting the odds at 30 per cent.
A sudden stratospheric warming has added to the uncertainty. While it is not an unusual occurrence, the warming can lead the jet stream to wiggle potentially trapping dry high-pressure systems over the UK.
Mr Owen said: “Last year, we were heading into late spring and everything looked fine. And then all of a sudden, we were straight into drought and hot temperatures. So that teaches you that things can happen extremely quickly.”
While November and December had been wet, he said, there were “cumulative effects” of the summer drought that had not yet been overcome.
The issue is particularly acute in Norfolk and Cornwall because of their local geographies and water networks. Even an average spring may not be enough to build sufficient water reserves to avoid restrictions this summer.
In Norfolk, water supplies are reliant on groundwater, which has not sufficiently recharged over the winter. Anglian Water told i that it was not ruling out a first hosepipe ban in two decades.
The company was able to avoid such measures last year because of substantial investments in improving supplies and reducing leaks. However, the hangover from last summer’s extraordinary conditions means the county is less well prepared for a dry summer than last year. The next six weeks would be critical, the company said.
In Cornwall, a hosepipe ban remains in place from last year. The main concern is that large local reservoirs have not been replenished.
These can take up to two years to fill, but dry weather and low river flows mean that they are only at around 70 per cent full. If they were to fall by the same rate as in 2022, an exceptionally dry year, they would reach just 10 per cent capacity.
Water companies have drought permits which they can ask the Environment Agency for permission to activate, these allow them to draw more water than is otherwise usually permitted from rivers and reservoirs.
There are so-called hands-off flow levels, below which rivers cannot be drained. Only the Environment Secretary has the power to override these.
More on Save Britain’s Rivers
Nevertheless, rivers could still be pushed to unhealthy limits. “The state of salmon and sea trout [in the South West] is in a pretty dark position,” said Mr Owen, “while there are a number of factors involved, low flows and high temperatures have an impact.”
His biggest fear, he said, was that low flows would prevent salmon smolts from returning to the ocean this spring.
As well as the hosepipe ban, South West Water has been running a “save every drop” campaign to reduce waste. Last November, it announced £45 million in investment in new water resilience schemes.
Water company insiders remain relatively relaxed about the national picture, given how early it is in the year and the wet end to last year.
Malcolm Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall, toldi that South West Water had been working hard with companies to reduce consumption and ensure supply and that he didn’t expect a continued drought to affect holidaymakers.