Driest February in England since 1993 signals drought ahead, say experts

The government risks sleepwalking into drought, experts have said, after England experienced an extremely dry February with very little rain forecast for spring.

Last year, most of England was plunged into drought conditions, with farmers struggling to plant and harvest crops, and hosepipe bans in action across the country. Water companies were preparing to take drastic action, including banning the filling of public swimming pools and cleaning non-domestic buildings.

Now, dry conditions are beginning again. In England, the spell from 1 to 20 February was the driest since 1993. Hertfordshire had an average of only 0.7mm of rain in February – 1% of its normal average for the whole month. The south of England in general was very dry, having 6% (3.8mm) of its February average.

Conditions are likely to stay dry, and experts have said England could be one dry spell away from a worse situation than last year, as reservoirs are still not refilled. The Met Office’s three-month outlook shows that hot, dry weather is likely this spring, and river flows across England are below normal, with some exceptionally low, according to the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology data portal.

A Met Office spokesperson said: “It has been dry. England has seen approaching a quarter of the rainfall that we would normally expect in February, although January was just over average. These figures come off the back of a relatively dry year last year. There is little precipitation covered in the forecast for the next few days and the outlook for March is that the month is more likely to be dry than wet.”

Stuart Singleton-White, the head of campaigns at the Angling Trust, said the government and water companies had not yet prepared for the crisis that could be about to hit.

He said: “Strange as it may seem, it’s not over yet. The risk of returning to drought in 2023 is real. Both Cornwall and the east of England are still in drought. Many of our rivers have not properly recovered. We do not want to see a return to the number of fish deaths and fish rescues we saw last summer. With proper planning, we don’t need to.

“We need to see water companies and the Environment Agency doing more to ensure the public are kept informed, encouraged to value and save water where they can, and be aware of the impact another year of drought would have on our water environment and the wildlife that depends on it. Water companies need to get ahead of the game. They need to introduce measures to help us conserve water a lot earlier than they did in 2022. We should not wait until the crisis hits before we take action.”

Mark Owen, also from the Angling Trust, who chairs the National Drought Group, added: “The recent dry spell possibly leading in to spring is particularly worrying. A dry spring and another drought or hot summer will compound the impacts on fish species that we saw last year.

“We are looking forward to seeing government, water companies and other abstractors plans to manage demand down to ensure that there is sufficient water in our rivers to protect wildlife. We need the help of all sectors to ensure that the impacts of the environmental drought that we saw last year are not repeated.”

Farmers are also concerned that the drought could be worse than last year’s. Kelly Hewson-Fisher, the National Farmers’ Union’s water resources specialist, said: “There are already reservoirs in East Anglia that are struggling, and little hotspot catchments that are finding it very challenging to abstract and to refill. So if we start looking at the season ahead, what we need is certainty that we’re going to get those reservoirs filled in order to ensure there’s water available for the crops that are to be grown.

“Water sources are in a very different position to what they were in February last year. So certainly, in those areas and those catchments, it’s going to be a very challenging situation if we don’t get the rainfall that’s required.”

Sam Larsen, the director of programmes and planning at Water UK, said: “Water levels in the environment began to pick up following last summer’s drought conditions, but low rainfall this month means a majority of UK rivers are below normal levels for this time of year, meaning there is less water available for nature, agricultural abstraction, and public water supply.

“It remains to be seen whether rainfall levels will pick up before summer. This, along with the lasting impacts of climate change and population growth, means it’s absolutely vital that we all continue to save water and help safeguard against potential future drought conditions.”

Tessa Wardley, the director of communications and advocacy at the Rivers Trust, said: “We urgently need better forward planning and public awareness around the challenges. We need to address the leaks in the water system and to reduce our personal water consumption, which is currently amongst the highest in Europe.

“On top of that, we’ve got to harness the power of nature-based solutions like rewiggling rivers, restoring wetlands, and installing sustainable drainage to retain water in the landscape. If this is done well, it could prevent the burden of drought being piled on to the public via hosepipe bans, or on rivers via increased abstraction and low flows.”

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