Plans to maintain water supply resilience have been discussed by a team of national experts, following a decline in reservoir and groundwater levels, as well as river flows in parts of England, as the UK faces the hottest June on record.
Chaired by the Environment Agency, the National Drought Group – which includes senior decision makers from the Environment Agency, government, water companies and key farming and environmental groups – met on Wednesday 28 June to discuss the current situation across England and action being taken to ensure there is a plentiful water supply over the coming months.
Water levels are currently higher than they were this time last year. However, the natural environment continues to take time to recuperate from the impacts of last summer and the Environment Agency is also focusing ongoing efforts on monitoring how fish and invertebrates are recovering from drought. The group discussed how water companies must increase resilience to dry weather and encourage customers to reduce demand. This builds on the government’s Plan for Water, which sets out measures to increase our resilience to drought and ease pressures on our water supply.
National Drought Group members heard that:
- England has experienced potentially the hottest June on record, according to the Met Office, with temperatures soaring to 32.2°C on the hottest day.
- The Environment Agency is clear that planning for increasingly extreme weather is essential in order for everyone to be prepared for the impacts these events cause – both drought and flooding.
- Water companies, retailers, regulators, as well as the agricultural and environment sectors, must prepare now as bouts of hot, dry weather become more consistent, and take forward improvements for managing and responding to future droughts.
- All sectors are undertaking precautionary planning in the event that hot, dry weather continues into the summer, and continue to work closely together to support water supplies across the country.
- The farming sector is working to improve drought resilience, to ensure water availability for the short and long term, helping overall food security.
To manage the impacts of hot, dry weather, the Environment Agency has taken significant steps toward increasing England’s water resilience by:
- Operating transfer schemes to manage water supplies during low flows including Severn Regulation and pumping schemes in East Anglia and Lincolnshire.
- Investing over £180m on environmental monitoring since 2016 – including on the River Surveillance Network, which provides a robust assessment of the health of rivers on a national scale.
- Facilitating fish rescues and providing advice to fishery owners, following hundreds of category 1-3 fish kill incidents so far this year. The Environment Agency’s fisheries teams are available around the clock to respond to incidents, including through the use of aeration equipment to help restore dissolved oxygen levels and protect fish.
- Managing how much, where and when water is abstracted through its licensing system.
Working with farmers and businesses to provide advice on water use.
- Providing ongoing support and collaboration through frequent National Drought Group meetings.
Simon Hawkins, Chair of the National Drought Group and Director Operations South East and East at the Environment Agency, said:
“The recent heatwave has served as a reminder that we need to prepare for weather extremes and act now to ensure resilient water supplies.
“The Environment Agency, water companies and partners are working collaboratively to handle drought risk across the country; with our staff managing abstraction licences to balance need, ensuring water companies implement their drought plans, working with farmers to manage resources, and rescuing fish in areas where river levels are extremely low.
“We all have a role in easing pressures on our precious water supply to protect the environment, our wildlife and ensure clean and plentiful water for future generations.”
The government’s Plan for Water brings together the significant action already taken, along with new measures, that will secure water supplies. This includes £2.2 billion of new, accelerated investment by water companies to spend on infrastructure to tackle pollution and increase our water resilience; a second £10m round of Water Management Grants to fund more on-farm reservoirs and better irrigation equipment; a new National Policy Statement on water resources so that key water supply infrastructure – such as reservoirs and water transfer schemes – can be built more quickly; and work to reduce water demand by encouraging water companies to consider how to rapidly increase smart meter installations for household and non-household customers.
Water Minister Rebecca Pow said:
“I recently visited some of the key reservoirs in Devon and Cornwall to see how they – and local residents – have been impacted by the continuing drought conditions in the region.
“Through our Plan for Water, we are ensuring key water supply infrastructure such as reservoirs can be built more quickly, helping increase our resilience in the long-term.
“Whilst we all have a responsibility to protect this precious resource, water companies must step up their efforts to ensure water resilience. This includes not only increasing supplies but also reducing leakage and encouraging water efficiency to better deliver for both customers and the environment.”
As of Tuesday 20 June, total reservoir stocks for England are at 83% of their total capacity. This year has seen a mix of exceptionally wet or very dry months, highlighting that we cannot rely on rainfall alone as climate change continues to make our weather patterns more erratic.
Devon, Cornwall and parts of East Anglia are still suffering from drought despite average rainfall earlier this year. In August last year, South West Water implemented a Temporary Use Ban for the Colliford and Roadford regions (covering most of Devon and Cornwall), which remains in place. Moreover, South East Water implemented a Temporary Use Ban in Sussex and Kent on Monday 26 June 2023. This followed an increased demand for water due to hot weather, which is impacting how quickly treated water storage reservoirs can be refilled, not because of drought conditions.
Environmental pressures are also being felt in the Lake District and North East. In the Lake District, Haweswater and Thirlmere saw a decrease of 13% in reservoir stocks between the end of April and end of May 2023. In the North East, the Teesdale reservoir group saw a 13% drop over this time.
Water companies are continuing to closely monitor the situation and have now submitted their Water Resource Management Plans to the Environment Secretary and Welsh Ministers where applicable. These set out how they will manage water resources to maintain supply and protect the environment through initiatives like new reservoirs and water transfer schemes. The water companies are responsible for providing water to their customers, ensuring that public water supply is secure, and for maintaining supplies whilst minimising environmental impact. They will:
- Continue to implement their drought plans proactively
- Seek to maintain or where necessary increase water availability
- Reduce water loss by stepping up work to fix leaks
- Help their customers use less water
- Take other measures to ensure there is enough water for essential supplies
By 2050, we may need around 4 billion additional litres of water per day to meet future demand for public water supply, with experts warning that action on water resilience must be taken now to determine how these significant needs will be met.