Driest winter for 92 years brings fears drought could be as bad as 1976

Taken from Western Daily Press, 20/02/2012

A drought ‘as bad as 1976’ was predicted by water experts last night.

They said it was ‘not a question of if, but when and how bad’ the water shortage would be for 2012.

Although hose pipe bans have yet to be mentioned by the region’s water companies, it may only be a matter of time before they’re imposed.

The lack of rainfall for the past two years yesterday saw increasing calls for households to save water, amid fears that the scenes of rivers drying up during the winter will become commonplace during the summer ahead.

While near-drought conditions are already affecting parts of east Wiltshire and the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, across the West reservoir levels and rainfall are down by roughly a fifth on average.

One of the region’s biggest water companies said that since records began almost 130 years ago, only the winters of 1892 and 1920 have seen less rainfall than this winter.

“It is no longer a case of if we have a drought this year but rather when, and how bad,” said Richard Aylard, the sustainability director for Thames Water, which supplies water to much of east Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. “This is not just our problem, it’s everyone’s problem and we can all do our bit to help – for example, turning off taps while we brush our teeth can save six litres of water a minute.”

The call to action comes as part of a major campaign to save one of Wiltshire’s key rivers, the Kennet, which dried up during the winter for the first time in living memory this season. Thames Water said it is currently flowing at a third the historic average for this time of year, because only 70 per cent of the average rainfall has fallen on its catchment area around Devizes and Marlborough over the past two years. In January, it was just half.

The River Coln, which flows through much of the famously picturesque Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, is even worse off, with river levels at only 31 per cent of the average for this time of year. The eastern side of the region has seen below average rainfall for 18 of the past 23 months, and even the wetter western side, around Somerset and Bristol, has seen less rainfall than normal.

Reservoirs which supply Bristol are still around three-quarters full from the levels they should be at this time of year, and after a normally wet December, January saw just 82 per cent of the average rainfall, while February has seen only 12mm of rain during the month so far – just a sixth of the normal monthly average.

Wessex Water announced it was resuming pumping river water into its reservoir at Luxhay because the storage there had dropped from 84 per cent down to three-quarters during the dry January.

Across the region, the West is experiencing the third dry winter in a row, with dire forecasts for the year ahead.

“We all need to recognise that the water coming out of our taps comes from our local river or from the aquifer that feeds that river - and the less water we all use the less we need to take from the river,” said Mr Aylard.

“Our region has received below-average rainfall for 18 of the past 23 months, with 2010/11 the third driest two-year period since records began 128 years ago, and many of our rivers, including the Kennet, are running low as a result,” he added.

A spokesman for Thames Water said it had started giving away free water-saving devices in a bid to get people in the affected areas, around Swindon and Marlborough, to cut down on water-use.

“As well as reducing the amount of water flowing off the land into rivers, the recent lack of rain has caused the groundwater – the underground water table, which drives flows in rivers all year round – to drop significantly, in some areas to below the levels recorded before the 1976 drought,” he said.

“This led in December to the River Kennet drying up completely west of Marlborough. For this to happen in December was alarming: normally at this time of year the river would be flowing most strongly following the start of the seasonal groundwater recharge brought about by winter rainfall, which seeps into the ground and tops up the area’s chalk aquifers, unlike summer rain, much of which is lost to evaporation and used up by plants,” he added.

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