Farmers and conservationists warn of water shortage, with ‘water shunting’ from wet north to dry south seen as one solution
May 12, 2017 — Farmers are warning that water may have to be transferred across Britain after an unusually dry winter and spring left more than four-fifths of rivers with too little to support local growers.
Fears of a drought were expected to ease this weekend as scattered showers usher in a more traditional British spring, but wildlife and agriculture industries are bracing for a long, parched summer.
The driest winter for 20 years has hit particularly hard in the south-east, where forecasts for rain remain elusive in the coming week. Rivers in the Chilterns were at half the level considered healthy for May. The river Ver, for example, was 3.7 miles (6km) shorter than normal, while one chalk stream had almost completely disappeared.
“It’s a total loss of an aquatic ecosystem – fish and invertebrates such as caddis fly larvae get trapped and die,” said Allen Beachey of the Chilterns Chalk Streams Project. “It’s not as bad as spring 2012 when we were saved by the wettest summer on record but we’re facing a summer of continued stress on what are already very stressed chalk rivers.”
Many farmers have begun to irrigate crops six weeks earlier than usual as a result, and fruit farmers in particular are worried that the water will run out.
Water management experts are calling for “water shunting”, in which water is moved huge distances from the high rainfall north to the low-rainfall south.
“HS2 is coming because the Treasury says we have to build the economy,” said Laurence Couldrick, CEO of Westcountry Rivers Trust, referring to the high-speed rail project. “The same argument is relevant for having water shunting. We might have to build a water shunting pipeline from Wales to London.”
John Breach, chairman of the British Independent Fruit Growers Association, is calling for a government-funded water grid to be built alongside HS2 and other major new roads to carry water from the north-west to the south-east.
“Anywhere they build new motorways they should think ahead for once – pipelines could be added alongside and you’re only paying for the cost of the pipes,” he said.
According to Clive Edmed, a fruit farmer in Kent, modern high-yielding apple trees require more water and are less resistant to drought than the larger-rooted old trees. Apples are likely to be smaller this year and the only consolation for growers such as Edmed is that he is unlikely to be competing with large scale imports – apple crops on the continent, including France, have also been decimated by drought and late frosts.
Late frosts in the UK have also caused apple growers to lose all the blossom – and this year’s fruit – in some orchards. “We’ve got our backs to the wall on several fronts,” said Edmed.
Beyond the struggle to make a living this season, farmers in the parched south-east are investing millions in on-farm reservoirs to future-proof their growing of high-value – but thirsty – crops such as potatoes and carrots.
The 2,530-hectare (6,250-acre) Euston estate in Suffolk has spent £800,000 on two reservoirs which hold 200m gallons of water and £1.2m on laying an underground irrigation main to distribute the water to its fields.
The farm has enough water to survive a one-and-a-quarter year drought, but even now does not have enough water to irrigate its cereal crops. According to Andrew Blenkiron, the estate’s director, the dry spring will reduce the farm’s wheat and barley yields by 20%, with further losses if the drought intensifies.
“If the river flows continue to be low this summer and we move into a really dry winter we won’t be able to fill our reservoirs,” said Blenkiron. “The ability to irrigate crops is going to be vitally important in the future. We need to simplify the planning system so we can build these storage reservoirs and come up with some kind of financial incentive such as tax-breaks to help pay for these massive capital items.”
Many smaller farms cannot afford to build reservoirs but an increasing number of farmers are seeking to build up organic matter in their soils so they better store moisture and do not erode in dry weather.
“This is the long game,” said Blenkiron. “It’s probably not my lifetime but my successor’s lifetime – building organic matter with lots of animal manures. Lots of farmers are really enlightened now and focused on this.”
Across the country, catchment partnerships involving local farmers, water companies and environmental organisations, are taking similar “sensible and pragmatic measures” to slow the movement of water through the landscape, according to Henri Brocklebank of Sussex Wildlife Trust. “We’re not pitched against farmers at all, we’re all on the same team on this one.”
While the dry weather is challenging human ingenuity, there are winners as well as losers in the natural world.
“The dry spell is doing far more good than harm for wildlife and long may it continue because the last time we had a decent summer was 2006,” said Matthew Oates of the National Trust. Recent wet summers have caused long, rank grass and bracken to swamp many heat-loving species.
“The main beneficiaries of drier weather are the myriad of plants and animals which like pockets of bare ground, because that’s been closed over in recent years. Insects such as mining bees really benefit from having barer ground and have for once been doing really well,” he said.
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society is calling on gardeners to put out shallow dishes of water for parched hedgehogs. The RSPB also advises topping up muddy puddles so house martins can find enough mud to build their nests.