Monday 1st June, 2020
After a winter of extreme flooding it seems absurd that we are now facing drought conditions in the Wye and Usk valleys.
Following the wettest February on record, the Met Office has confirmed that this spring has been the sunniest and one of the driest too. Sadly, for our rivers this means extreme low flows, rising water temperatures and in the case of the Wye, more severe algal blooms.
The forecast is for the current sunny spell to break midway through the week. For the Wye, Usk and rivers across the UK, this could not come soon enough.
In the past week the Environment Agency have rescued stranded fish (trout and salmon parr) from the rapidly drying up river Teme on the Powys/Herefordshire border and its tributary, the Redlake. This happens most years on this Severn tributary but it’s usually not until late summer that the Agency is called upon. Last year’s rescue was in September.
The Agency have requested that anyone coming across drying up rivers and stranded fish report it to their 0800 80 70 60 incident line or if in Wales, to Natural Resources Wales on 0300 065 3000.
Also, any suspected illegal abstraction should be reported to the same numbers.
There have also been a few reports of distressed fish in the Wye and Usk catchment. It is especially important for anglers to practice good catch and release techniques during these conditions.
The Elan Valley reservoirs started to release welcome compensation water into the upper Wye some weeks ago after levels dropped to the required level at Redbrook. Those levels have dropped further and are now to what is known as “hands off” flows, meaning that there are restrictions on some water abstraction from the Wye and Lugg.
“Hands off” isn’t quite what it sounds. Many licences still allow some agricultural abstraction even when the rivers are in a parlous state. In addition, unregulated “trickle” irrigation was supposed to become licenced by the Agency this year but, perhaps understandably, the COVID-19 crisis has meant a delay to this process.
If climate scientists are right (and so far they have been) these extremes are a sign of things to come. Our rivers’ ecology is adapted to the average conditions. The records are being broken at an ever increasing rate meaning the ecology is only starting to recover from the last extreme event when the next arrives. These high frequency, high impact shocks are bad news for any system that is not resilient to them.
The Foundation’s job is to make the two rivers more resilient. With regards low flows, a tighter abstraction regime is only part of the answer. Mitigating drought flows is part of the same solution to mitigating severe floods. Improving the permeability and storage capabilities of the catchment is crucial if we are to lessen the effects of climate change for farmers, residents of the Wye and Usk valleys and, crucially, for the rivers themselves.
With the Foundation’s help, many farmers in the Wye Valley have been building winter storage ponds to support them through droughts such as these. In Herefordshire, farmers are also working with us and the council to hold back water in their soils. Meanwhile, in Powys we are working with land managers and farmers to develop the markets that will enable them to farm in a way that captures carbon, improves biodiversity, reduces flooding, supports base flows and improves water quality; in effect, making the catchment more resilient.