Protecting the environment

How can we get the right level of environmental protection during a drought?

Why the contribution is important

Drought is a naturally occurring phenomenon from which the natural environment is typically able to recover.  However catchments under stress are more vulnerable to the impacts of drought and may take much longer to recover if they ever do.

Environmental impacts from a drought can include fish kills as rivers dry out and oxygen concentration falls.

Research suggests that one of the most important factors influencing the response of the aquatic life to drought is the physical modification of aquatic habitat through changes to its shape, structure or composition.  Aquatic life inhabiting modified water bodies are less able to survive and recover from drought.

Currently we can review the balance between environmental protection and human needs during a drought, for example:

  • Water companies can apply to the Environment Agency for drought permits which allow them access to specified sources or to modify or suspend conditions on their abstraction licences.
  • The Water Framework Directive allows member States to declare a "temporary deterioration" to achieving its general objectives for water bodies in prolonged drought conditions, if they could not have been planned for, prevented or reasonably foreseen.    

by abstractionreform on September 05, 2014 at 11:01AM

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  • Posted by Mberry September 05, 2014 at 13:12

    The view expressed is somewhat over generalised. It is clear that persistant overabstraction may lead to lasting damage. However, in some cases, modified water bodies actually recieve more water in a drought than the naturalised systems (by virtue of statutory discharge conditions).

    It is clear that short term droughts have the potential to cause some level of harm. However, this can manifest as minor changes to environmental index scores right up to dramatic scenes of fish kills. Even in those situations, full recovery is restored, usually within months of resuming normal flow patterns.

    The short term environmental considerations during drought need to be balanced against the harm caused loss of production or failure of water supplies.

    In a country where population is projected to grow by 20% by 2040 it is questionable to assume natural systems should be maintined at a pre-industrial natural condition in all circumstances.

    The approach has to be risk based. A certain amount pf environmental damage can be acceptable depending upon the frequency, scale of the impact, the speed of recovery and the impact of depriving other enterprises of water.
  • Posted by Rose September 09, 2014 at 21:23

    We can learn a lot from the 2012 drought. Some of the issues the Environment Sub Group [of the national drought group] observed included the need to monitor and share the evidence of drought impacts on ecosystems. More research is needed to understand how ecosystems can cope with the shock of water scarcity caused by natural water scarcity compounded by higher water abstraction. But it's clear that the response is variable depending on the health and resilience of the ecosystem, the state of drought and pressures put on it. While sometimes nature can bounce back quickly, in some cases it can take decades for an ecosystem to return to health - or even longer especially if localized extinctions and/or age classes of species takes place.

    There are a number of 'low regret' things to consider before getting into a polarized (water for environment or people) debate, starting with more targeted and responsive demand management (is it acceptable that per capita consumption is rising to 200-300 litres per day during drought?) and increasing resilience of ecosystems through 'everyday' management actions (e.g. ensuring connectivity). There's also a role for more communications linked to natural water availability, the potential for 'environmental drought orders' (that give special conditions to give our most important conservation sites greater protection) and lots to explore in relation to tariffs and incentives - particularly from the US and Australia which are live to this at the moment.
    More generally, I welcome this thread as I think it's so important to consider drought in the context of abstraction reform. Water stress, and environmental risk of damage due to scarcity, are time and place dependent. For many rivers, it is when water levels are naturally low that the risk is most acute. And, alongside this, is the time when demand and needs for abstraction tends to peak. So it's essential that a reformed 'everyday' abstraction regime escalates to a reformed, more sustainable, drought regime.
  • Posted by anglianwater September 11, 2014 at 16:36

    We also welcome this thread and agree that reform needs to consider how a new system would operate during a prolonged drought.

    Achieving the ‘right’ level of environmental protection implies making a value judgement. Getting the level of environmental protection ‘right’ will require not only robust scientific evidence to understand the impacts of drought and abstraction on the ecology, but also stakeholder involvement and collaboration to ensure that the trade-offs between environmental protection and the impacts on abstractors can be understood and balanced at an acceptable level. The ‘right’ level will reflect local conditions.
  • Posted by abstractionreform September 24, 2014 at 13:47

    Thank you for getting involved in the discussion.

    Mberry you said the approach should be risk based. This is something we are considering across our abstraction reform proposals; we proposed taking a catchment based approach that only introduces the full package of reforms where there is a benefit to doing so.
  • Posted by WNE October 06, 2014 at 17:11

    commerce and society must be treated equally and fairly - for the environment always to be given protected status does not reflect needs of all parties. change is upon us, greater prevalence of extreme events means we should not just look back to a pre-industrial position, but ensure that the environment can cope moving forwards, not just trying to drag it backwards
  • Posted by SouthStaffsWater October 09, 2014 at 13:17

    PWS companies have a legal duty to supply customers regardless of demands and drought situation. this is not nessecarily the same for business, although economic impact may be suffered with restricted supplies.
    Whilst PWS can implement TUBS and NEU restrictions, lessons learnt in 2011-12 demonstrate that these are less acceptable to business due to economic impacts. This leads to less options for managing demands and reducing the need for abstraction. The impact of continuing abstractions that may harm the environment, both in magnitude and longevity needs to be understood by all abstractors, and prioritization of need is important. Public health must always be most important, and a certain proportion of available water, or an allowance to make environmental impact should be given to PWS Companies to meet their obligations.
  • Posted by DCWW October 10, 2014 at 10:41

    We support the comments made by ‘anglianwater’. Our experience on the Rivers Wye, Usk and elsewhere demonstrates that evidence based catchment approaches are appropriate, for the setting of abstraction licenses, especially in Wales, as they enable licenses to be tailored to reflect the needs of individual catchments, including the particular habitats and species they support. This includes any licence conditions associated with protecting the environment during drought periods.
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