Today, a drought has been officially declared in Hertfordshire but we don’t even have a hosepipe ban! It simply underlines the fact that water company Drought Management Plans are not worth the paper they are written on – as far as the environment and chalk streams are concerned.
“The Environment Secretary has said that in accordance with their pre-agreed drought plans, water companies across the country have rightly taken action to mitigate the effects of this prolonged dry weather using the range of tools available to them.” Defra, 12 Aug 2022
It’s all about the drought plans then. Unfortunately that’s not good news for the environment. Take the case of our very own River Ver, a rare and historic chalk stream that largely dried up in 2019, leaving only the last 5km of the 28km flowing into the Colne. Hundreds of citizens protested in St Albans that their river had disappeared without so much as a hosepipe ban. This is where Affinity Water’s Drought Management Plan comes in. Groundwater has to have fallen to Trigger Zone 3 before a hosepipe ban might be called – and in the Ver’s case virtually all of the river will have gone by then, as in 2019.
The trouble is at present we are deemed to be only in Trigger Zone 1. The events of 2019 were a huge signal that the Trigger Zones needed reassessing from the environment’s point of view. But nothing has changed in the last 3 years and the trigger points remain the same. Indeed, in Affinity’s draft Drought Management Plan for 2025-9, there’s no change proposed for the hosepipe ban point – so this scene is set be repeated again and again.
Public water supply trumps the environment
The plain truth is that Drought Management Plans are more about maintaining public water supply than sparing the environment from the worst effects of prolonged dry weather or a drought. Please correct us if we are wrong, but although water companies are obliged to have Drought Management Plans (developed with countless rounds of consultation), it appears that there isn’t any obligation to actually use to them…
Let’s not kid ourselves; a hosepipe ban won’t solve everything. However, it’s a very good way to signal to consumers that small actions right now will save water and might prevent a much larger future inconvenience. Not to mention helping the environment and giving the river an opportunity to flow for just that bit longer.
Winter rain guessing game
The Ver’s underlying flow comes from groundwater that fell as rain and soaked through the Chiltern Hills months ago. It’s impossible to predict how much rain will fall this winter and replenish the groundwater we all drink and the Ver relies on.
We note that even Affinity Water’s crystal ball doesn’t always work, which is why we would prefer a precautionary principle to be applied. In July 2018 groundwater levels were much as they are now.
Affinity plumped to take no action, anticipating winter rains that didn’t come. Instead, a dry winter led to Hertfordshire’s rivers, including the Ver, experiencing a disastrous summer of 2019 with the rivers’ ecosystems the top casualty. The same bullish approach is being employed once again.
The Ver – struggling at the best of times
We can’t quite work out why the reluctance to try and reduce demand from Affinity’s hot weather supply highs of 1200Mld (million litres a day) towards the more regular 900Mld. With that level of potential water saving, the environment would be a healthier place. It’s all the more mystifying as the Environment Agency’s Environmental Flow Indicator shows a long-standing 24Mld deficit in the Ver’s flow – in other words the river is struggling at the best of times. All the more reason to take early action one might think.
What can you do?
- If we all continue to use water wisely, that’s an obvious start.
- Use the dry weather to spot and report any water leaks. Affinity Water leaks 161 million litres of water every day – so fixing leaks is a top priority
- Write to your MP and say that Affinity Water’s Drought Management Plan is inadequate for protecting the environment
- Watch our social media and website – for information updates and what other action you might be able to take