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Most of the UK’s rivers are on “red alert”, according to the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), as campaigners say “our rivers are dying” and call for immediate nationwide hosepipe bans.
This summer, water companies have come under intense criticism for their apparent failure to plan for drought and deal with their leaking pipes. Sarah Bentley, the chief executive of Thames Water, received a £496,000 bonus last year, which is nearly double the performance-related payout for the previous year, and a salary increase to £750,000 from £438,000 in 2020-21, annual accounts show.
Sources at Thames Water have ruled out a hosepipe ban being announced this weekend despite the dry status of rivers around the south of England.
Most water companies have held off from banning excessive use of water such as watering gardens and washing cars with hosepipes, but river experts hope the August forecasts from UKCEH will spur them into action. The Rivers Trust has accused water companies of waiting until the last minute to implement bans so as to avoid negative reactions from customers. Only two so far, Southern Water and South East Water, have announced hosepipe 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 the latest forecasts, rivers are set at the most severe drought warning level across the country, even in areas where there has been 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 the Waveney flowing more slowly than they did during the droughts in 2011 and 2006, when there were hosepipe bans in place in many areas of the country. In Scotland, rivers including the Tyne and the Tweed are forecast to flow much more slowly than usual.
Next week, the government and UKCEH will produce a report based on these forecasts that will analyse how dire the situation is in the UK, with rivers running dry.
Campaigners hope that an urgent action plan is put in place, with fears that rivers could face long-term effects from the lack of water.
Last month, the Environment Agency’s National Drought Group, made up of farming groups, environment experts and representatives from government agencies, met to discuss the response. They had been due to meet in October, but the meeting was moved forward due to the drastic conditions. However, the government does not enforce hosepipe bans, leaving it to water companies. It can give advice and has been urging for further action to be taken.
But charities do not think this is good enough. Josh Jones a senior technical analyst at the Rivers Trust, said: “It just shows we need to implement management. Without managing the demand when there’s a limited supply we are headed for rivers and wildlife in rivers heading for a difficult time. We need to slow the flow of water into rivers in the first place and replenish soil moisture, and we need more wetlands which also store water. Water companies should be putting hosepipe bans in place across the country and they should be pro active rather than retroactive, this problem has been brewing for a long time. Even if you look at a 12-month average, it’s below average rainfall across the country. This problem was predictable.”
A spokesperson for the Angling Trust said: “Let’s not sugar-coat this, our rivers are dying. The situation is farcical, predictable and entirely a result of our abject failure to plan properly in this country. There hasn’t been a new reservoir built in southern England since 1976, coincidentally responding to the last major drought, yet since then millions more people are living here and using more and more water. With climate change impacts being felt here and now, the government and water companies have known this is coming. Yet they have prioritised profits over the needs of our environment and wildlife.”
The consequences for nature could be dire because of this lack of action, he added. He said: “We are seeing an increasing amount of fish kills being reported, starved of oxygen and a lack of water, and having to cope with this on top of the pollution being poured into our rivers. And the lack of water is killing our chalk streams, for which we have a global responsibility to protect. Many of them, from the Pang in Berkshire to the Ver in Hertfordshire, are no longer flowing along long stretches of their upper reaches, some of the most important habitats for wildlife.
“Reducing demand and introducing hosepipe bans is important. We are in a drought, it is a crisis, we all have to play our part. But all of this is just a sticking plaster. What we are experiencing is the new normal. We need urgent action, and a much faster response from the government, regulators and water companies.”
Thames Water told the Guardian that its teams had been working 24/7 to maintain the water supply but that if the dryness continues, water-saving measures including restrictions may become necessary. The company has a statutory drought plan, and implemented the first stage of that plan in May, which was a media campaign with water-saving tips.
“The next stage of the plan would be to introduce a temporary use ban which is likely to include hosepipes. The timing will depend on the amount of water used by our customers, which determines the speed at which reservoir storage declines and the amount of flow in the rivers, which determines how much water we can take to refill them,” Thames Water said.
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.