Coping with Drought in the Fens

11:22 Monday 27th June 2011
Mid Morning Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: How are we doing for water? Well let’s speak to Geoff Brighty, who’s from the Environment Agency .. Thank you for coming in. We had this massive period of dry weather, unprecedented almost. We’ve had a bit of rain. Now it’s absolutely boiling hot again. Where are we with water levels at the moment?
GEOFF BRIGHTY: Well certainly it’s got very hot in the last few days, and that’s going to I guess change our outlook for the next two or three weeks really. To just go back over the last month, in fact last week, we had more rain last week than we had between March and May, so between half and one inch of rain, which shows you how patchy the rain can be. When you have a big storm you get a lot. If you don’t get the storm you don’t get very much at all. And the wet weather through June has done two things. One, it’s stopped demand, so that’s helped us gardeners, and obviously farmers and growers. But it’s also been cooler, and that’s helped, reduced the amount of evaporation, the plants push through. So June has been a good month. But as it gets hotter, we can expect to see demand go up through the irrigation season. We’re right at the peak of that now, for the next six weeks. So if it stays hot and dry, I think we can see a worsening period over the next three to four weeks really.
PAUL STAINTON: Water levels we were told were OK, weren’t they, even though we’d had this drought. But there’s got to come a point when, if it doesn’t rain again for a few weeks, we’re going to be struggling.
GEOFF BRIGHTY: I think it’s important to distinguish the two types of water here, because we’re talking water for public water supply. And Anglian Water and Cambridge Water have ample supplies for us as domestic consumers and business, going forward for the next year or so. But what we’re looking at in terms of the environment is the river flows. And they’re dropping off, particularly above Cambridge. I think my biggest concern probably is around the Granta and Cam and the Rhee catchment, where those water levels are dropping off quite quickly now, and we may see some restrictions for farmers in that area over the next three or four weeks, if we don’t get the rain we hoped we would get.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. This text just in, ” This heat is fine Paul if you’re not working, but spare a thought for us at haymaking. I hope it pours tonight, to slow things down, also to help our crops.”  And that is the key here, isn’t it? We’ve heard from farmers over the last few weeks, saying how dry the land is, Lawrence of Arabia-type connotations of things around their head as they go out to the crops. And they’re struggling anyway, irrigating earlier than ever. And now you’re saying, perhaps, if we don’t get the rain, there will be restrictions in place?
GEOFF BRIGHTY: Well we’re monitoring the environment all the time. Our job really is to balance the needs of people, the environment, and obviously agriculture, particularly in the Fens. So we’re working very closely with farmers to ensure, first of all, we can give them the prospects for the next week or so, depending on how the river levels are doing, and then what’s been really impressive over the last three or four years, and this is the third dry spell we’ve had in the last three years, we’ve worked very closely with farmers, just to give them that heads-up. And that means they can then plan. And actually they voluntarily go through their own restrictions. They will go from, say seven nights irrigation, only to four nights. So they eke out the supplies for a collective of farmers in an area. And that’s the best way really. Because it means that everybody then is working together to make the most of the water supplies locally.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. How bad are the restrictions, if you have to intervene and put them on yourself?
GEOFF BRIGHTY: It would have to be pretty bad for us to get involved. What we have is what we call cessation clauses in all the extraction licences. So once a particular river level or flow is passed, then farmers are aware of course that if that kicks in, they will not be able to abstract either as often, or even in some cases at all. So we don’t take those decisions lightly. We talk to our farming customers all the time, to ensure they get a look ahead, and that they can then plan and perhaps manage their own situation better.
PAUL STAINTON: Is there a way of moving water around, to help these farmers out? You mentioned that the Granta area, you’re struggling the worst at the moment. Can we not move water from say Peterborough, or Graffham, or somewhere else, and just help them out?
GEOFF BRIGHTY: Anglian Water have their own water distribution systems, and they are able to do some of that. But in terms of farming, what you’re looking at really is, in the Fens, yes, the Internal Drainage Boards do manage and move water around across the Drainage Board areas, Middle Level and so on. And they’re very effective at doing that. The farmers close what they call their slackers, which is the drainage bores that allow the water into the fields, to allow the river levels to build up. And then in the week they will then allow those slackers to be opened, and put the water in the fields. So they can do that. But those farmers abstracting from rivers or groundwater, basically they’re fixed to that particular water that’s available locally.
PAUL STAINTON: Are there other problems with the rivers as well, in terms of fish and wildlife, when the river levels get lower and lower?
GEOFF BRIGHTY: You’re absolutely right. As we move forward into the summer it gets hotter and dryer. River levels will drop away. That’s quite normal. But it’ll be really severe this year, probably, particularly in the Fens. We’re always worried about a place called the Counter Drain, which often has fish kills later in the summer.
PAUL STAINTON: Whereabouts is that?
GEOFF BRIGHTY: It’s running from Mepal out to Welmore in Norfolk. So it’s a very long thin watercourse. It’s influenced by tidal levels as to how we fill it as well, from the bottom end. And that can lead to really bad water quality problems later in the sumnmer. Also if we have a storm, the storm, when it hits the land, will often wash out soil and muck fom the roads and so on, the drains, and that can lead to low oxygen levels in the rivers. And again, that can be very sporadic across the entire catchment, that will lead to big fish kills. And my teams are on standby all the time to, for example, go out and put hydrogen peroxide in the water, so that raises the oxygen levels, but also to net fish out if they’re in distress, and take them somewhere else.
PAUL STAINTON: Have we seen any yet? Have you seen any examples.
GEOFF BRIGHTY: No nothing yet, which is I think June has really helped us in that regard, particularly the cold temperatures. The other thing that can happen is we get a lot of weed growth in the river, and that impacts on navigation, but also really water down the river system. So they’re cutting the weeds through the summer as well.
PAUL STAINTON: People always ask, don’t they, they always go back to ’76, and say where are we? Is it as bad as the Big Summer Drought of ’76? Are we anywhere near?
GEOFF BRIGHTY: We’ve gone early with our call for drought this year, a lot earlier than ’76 which was late July. It’s because of the very dry Spring. So if we have a similar rainfall pattern as we’ve had in June through July and August, we may miss the worst of it. If it stays like it is now, thirty one degrees and humid, then of course that will lead us to problems. I’m hoping that the irrigation season will be through the worst of it, and the farmers are able to lift their root crops from the Fens in particular. And we just hope and pray we end up with some rainfall to help the rivers out through the remaining part of the Summer.
PAUL STAINTON: But it’s a watrching brief for now.
GEOFF BRIGHTY: It is. Every day.
PAUL STAINTON: Geoff, thank you for coming in and battling with the rigours of the A14 this morning. Geoff Brighty, Environment Agency Area Manager, with a watching brief on those river levels, and water levels across Cambridgshire.