Rain or shine, we need to come to terms with drought

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AFTER one of the warmest Marches and a record wet April, at last something like summer weather.

We’re back within the bounds of normal variability for a late British spring, says the forecasters, and enjoyment of bright sunshine eclipses all thoughts of drought.

Eleven days ago drought status was lifted in 19 areas of south-west England, the Midlands and part of Yorkshire, following the persistent rainfall experienced last month – the wettest April on record. Areas in the south-east and east of England (including East Yorkshire) remain in drought with hosepipe bans.

Now the Environment Agency says the word drought suffers from a perception problem, in that many take it to mean the cracked earth seen in areas of Africa and India – an image rather at odds with the green and pleasant land we see around us.

There are hundreds of definitions of drought, depending where you are in the world. The agency proposes that new descriptions are used to make the “water resources situation” clearer, pointing out the difference between the water shortages that impact on the environment and/or farming and those that affect households and other water users.

The change to classifying the situation in one of three ways would, says the EA, help to distinguish major emergencies requiring drought orders from those that mean some environmental impact – large or smaller.

People need guidance on the order of seriousness so that they can respond accordingly, says the EA. The terminology the agency has come up with is hardly snappy, the names and definitions of the three types of drought being:

Temporary Use Restriction: Water company drought plans have required them to implement restrictions, such as hosepipe bans, to help conserve supplies. In addition, farmers, other abstractors and the environment are likely to be adversely affected and groundwater stores will not be replenished by short-lived periods of rainfall.

Environmental Stress due to Rainfall Deficit: Farmers, other abstractors and the environment are at risk of adverse affects by long-term, significantly below average rainfall. Rivers and lakes may show short-term responses due to rainfall but groundwater stores remain in deficit.

No Environmental Stress due to Rainfall Deficit: Rainfall and the water environment within normal ranges. No significant impacts on either the environment, farmers or other abstractors.

Trevor Bishop, head of water resources at the EA, said: “Drought is a very blunt term. It encompasses everything from salmon having a little trouble moving up river, to hosepipe bans and drought orders. We need to show the gradation from something that is less serious to situations where farmers and economics are impacted.”

Experts like Dr Barnaby Smith at the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, say some people have been surprised by how much groundwater (water in the chalk and limestone beneath our feet) levels have recovered, but ideally there still needs to be a summer of average rainfall and cool temperatures before aquifers in the south and east return to healthier levels.

“The rainfall has bought us some time but we’re not back to ‘normal’,” says Dr Smith.

A month of heavy rain can’t rectify serious problems for farmers, because only so much water can be absorbed and the excess runs off into rivers and the sea, also causing localised floods on the way.

But will the suggested sliding scale terminology the Environment Agency is proposing make us more conscious of when we do and when we don’t need to be careful in our water usage?

“Even when there is not judged to be a temporary use restriction, it’s good for people to realise that the environmental stress situation means they should think about how much water they use,” says Dr Smith. “There may be no standpipes in use or hosepipe ban in operation, but the second category means that rivers have less area in them, fish have more trouble swimming upstream to spawn and there is less oxygen in the water.”

Ben Hughes of the EA says people understand the word drought as one that simply affects supply of water, and the new classifications will give the public and businesses better information.

“The message we want to get across is that water is a massive resource and people should conserve it as much as possible, whether they see problems around them or not. It’s not an infinite resource, and we take it too much for granted.”