Most of Britain’s rivers are on “red alert”, according to the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), as campaigners say “our rivers are dying” and call for an immediate nationwide snake ban.
This summer, water companies have faced intense criticism for their apparent failure to plan for droughts and deal with their leaking pipes. Sarah Bentley, Chief Executive of Thames Waterreceived a £496,000 bonus last year, almost double the performance-related payout for the previous year, and a pay rise to £750,000 from £438,000 in 2020-21, annual accounts show.
Sources at Thames Water have ruled out a hose ban being announced this weekend despite the dry state of rivers around southern England.
Most water companies have refrained from prohibiting excessive use of water such as watering gardens and washing cars with hoses, but river experts hope the August forecasts from the UKCEH will spur them into action. The Rivers Trust has accused water companies of waiting until the last minute to implement bans to avoid backlash from customers. Only two so far, Southern Water and South East Water, have announced snake bans.
Last month was the driest July in England for more than 100 years and some areas have had their driest summer on record. According to latest forecasts, rivers are set at the most severe drought warning level across the country, even in areas that have had rain in recent weeks. For many, it is almost certain that the flow will be the lowest it has been this century.
The forecasts show major rivers, including the Avon and Waveney, flowing more slowly than they did during the droughts of 2011 and 2006, when hose bans were in place in many areas of the country. In Scotland, rivers including the Tyne and Tweed are expected to flow much slower than normal.
Next week the Government and UKCEH will produce a report based on these forecasts which will analyze how serious the situation is in the UK, with rivers run dry.
Campaigners hope an emergency action plan will be put in place, with fears rivers could suffer long-term effects from the lack of water.
Last month, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency’s National Drought The group, made up of farming groups, environmental experts and representatives from government agencies, met to discuss the response. They were supposed to meet in October, but the meeting was brought forward due to the drastic conditions. However, the government does not enforce snake bans and leaves it to water companies. It can provide advice and has called for further action.
But charities don’t think that’s good enough. Josh Jones, Senior Technical Analyst at Rivers The trust said: “It just shows that we need to implement management. Without managing demand when there is limited supply, we are heading for rivers and wildlife in rivers heading for a difficult time. We need to stem the flow in the first place of water to rivers and replenish soil moisture and we need more wetlands which also store water Water companies should introduce hose bans across the country and they should be proactive rather than retroactive this issue has been brewing for a long time time. Even if you look at a 12-month average, it’s below average rainfall across the country. This problem was predictable.”
A spokesman for the Angling Trust said: “Let’s not sugarcoat this, our rivers are dying. The situation is farcical, predictable and entirely the result of our profound failure to plan properly in this country. No new reservoir has been built in southern England since 1976, which coincidentally responded to the last major drought, but since then millions more people have lived here and used more and more water. With climate change impacts being felt here and now, the government and water companies knew this was coming. Yet they prioritized profits for the needs of our environment and wildlife.”
The consequences for nature could be severe due to this lack of action, he added. He said: “We are seeing an increasing amount of fish kills being reported, starved of oxygen and lack of water and we have to cope with this on top of the pollution that is being poured into our rivers. And the lack of water is killing our chalk streams that we have a global responsibility to protect.Many of them, from the Pang in Berkshire to the Ver in Hertfordshire, no longer flow along long stretches of their upper reaches, some of the most important wildlife habitat.
“It is important to reduce demand and introduce a snake ban. We are in a drought, it is a crisis, we all have to play our part. But all this is just a band-aid. What we are experiencing is the new normal. We need swift action and a much quicker response from government, regulators and water companies.”
Thames Water told the Guardian that its teams had been working 24/7 to maintain water supplies, but that if the drought continues, water-saving measures including restrictions may become necessary. The company has a statutory drought plan, and in May implemented the first phase of that plan, which was a media campaign with water-saving tips.
“The next phase of the plan would be to put in place a temporary ban on use, which will likely include hoses. The timing will depend on the amount of water used by our customers, which will determine the rate at which reservoir storage declines and the amount of flow in the rivers, which determine how much water we can take to replenish them,” said Thames Water.
It added: “Customers can really help us with this long-term planning by using water wisely – only using what they absolutely need.”
The Guardian has approached Defra for comment.