This month, the Environment Agency declared a drought across large parts of England, including the Trent catchment. Due to low rainfall and increased demand, our rivers, brooks and streams have hit historical lows. Some smaller streams have dried up entirely.

This is the future. In the UK, we will see more droughts and floods, begging the question of whether this is the time to pray for a downpour or whether recent rain has fixed the problem.

While the little rain we have seen recently is welcome, it is unlikely to mitigate the long-term consequences of a drought that has been in the making for months. So far, we have seen 67% of the rainfall usually expected between April to June 2022 in our area. In July, Met Office data reveals a drop of up to 50% in rainfall with very few spots seeing less than a 25% drop in average rainfall. The data mirrors the national statistics, recording a drop of 35% rainfall in England in the month of July.

There is a bigger picture. Our summers will get hotter, our winters wetter. Our dependency on freshwater and healthy rivers is likely to increase. To adapt, we need to build back wetter. In practice – rather than praying to the weather gods, we need to invest our energy into catchment-scale nature-based solutions that restore our drought-struck water cycle.

Credit: Southwell Flood Forum

The impact of drought in the Trent catchment

  • Flood risk increases. As surfaces harden up in dry conditions, the likelihood of downpours turning into surface flooding rises. The Trent catchment has seen dramatic flood events. Southwell was inundated in summer 2013 and Clarborough in 2007. Such floods occurred during sudden downpours in tinder-dry conditions. Their suddenness and magnitude left many locals traumatised.
  • Pollution, including sewage and surface run-off, can be found in higher concentrations. As water levels and oxygen levels drop, the river will be less likely to cope with the nutrition overload and toxicity of chemicals entering our rivers. In the Trent catchment alone, we have seen over 271,726 hours of sewage entering the catchment coming from 38,555 spills in 2021, as the sewage map reveals. The impact of such spills magnifies as less water is available to dilute.
  • The deposition of silt and gravel slows down and makes it harder for fish to find good-quality spawning habitats. The Dove amongst other tributaries is a vital spawning ground for the critically endangered European Eel and Atlantic Salmon.
  • Plant communities sustaining fish and invertebrate communities change long-term as the water warms and slows, affecting wildlife communities across the entire catchment and take a long time to recover.
  • Increasing water temperature affects the water’s oxygen levels and puts species susceptible to water temperature rises at risk.
  • Dropping water levels can make barriers impassable, blocking water and aquatic wildlife from travelling further downstream with devastating impacts on downstream fish populations.

 

The bigger picture behind droughts in the Trent catchment

Droughts will become the new normal. There is a 1 in 4 chance of a very serious drought in England before 2050. Climate change is short-circuiting the frequency of such extreme events-the drought we’re facing now is a pressure test for the drier years to come.

In our catchment, we face a range of vulnerabilities. Vast swathes of urban and agricultural land shape our water cycle and affect water quality. In other words, the way we use our land provides little room for natural processes mitigating against the lack and risk of intense rainfall in dry conditions.

As urban and rural infrastructure are built for drainage, our infrastructure makes a bad situation worse. It intensifies the impact of drought and deluge, as precious water is being flushed through the landscape.

What role can nature-based solutions play?

This is where nature-based solutions come in. Designed to slow the flow, the approach can reduce the impact of drought and flood. Initial EA modelling estimates that nature-based solutions could increase water resources by up to 5% across England. The estimate varies locally but aligns with the estimations of Natural Flood Management reducing ca. 5% of peak flow.

Natural Flood Management in Charnwood, Leicestershire.

In the river world, nature-based solutions create living landscapes and green infrastructure solutions. Studying the flow of water, features designed to slow and store some of the flow creates benefits for communities and wildlife-both in urban and rural areas. Nature-based solutions often work alongside traditional grey infrastructure solutions, mitigating environmental risks.

Unlike grey infrastructure, often fixing one issue at a time, the benefits of nature-based solutions tend to go the extra mile. Their restorative nature brings long-term benefits to wildlife, water quality, and communities, providing a resource, refuge, or simply being a place to enjoy.  

An example here would be a reconnected floodplain. Unlike grey infrastructure i.e. a concrete barrier blocking floodwater, a reconnected floodplain creates room for wildlife, floodwater and stores water. During drought, wetland areas can retain moisture, reduce fire risk and create vital refuges for wildlife. 

At Trent Rivers Trust, we have been working on Sustainable Drainage Schemes and Natural Flood Management, tackling the issue in rural and urban areas. Such solutions only make sense at scale and require work with a range of audiences. Landowners, developers, councils, flood action groups, even gardeners and local volunteers can get involved in making spaces more drought and flood resilient. Trent Rivers Trust has been doing this for over two decades. Working with decision-makers on land use, we have created living bunds, wetland areas, removed redundant weirs and reconnected floodplains. We have also built rain gardens, implemented and educated on Sustainable Drainage schemes.

What else needs to be done?

In nature recovery and climate adaptation, there are no silver bullets.  There are many threads that need to be tugged to untangle the issue.

Fixing our water infrastructure

Solutions must focus on fixing a water infrastructure that is losing too much of our precious water. Nationally, 20% of our water is supplied to leaks. Investment in existing infrastructure is needed to reduce the demand for water that may end up nowhere useful. As England is looking to gain more than 4 billion litres in the system by 2050, substantial efficiency gains are needed.

Collective action

Reducing water consumption at home. Currently, the Trent catchment, managed by Severn Trent Water, is not under a hosepipe ban. Though a future ban has not been ruled out, people have been encouraged to reduce and reuse their water-which is also relevant not in drought conditions. Despite an understandable frustration with water wasted in leaks, every drop can count, with our collective action having short-term impacts but also supplementing the long-term solutions needed. 

Such collective action can have an immediate effect and is part of the solution. Here’s Severn Trent’s official recommendation for the time being.

  • Keep hydrated
  • Have a shower rather than a bath
  • Use a bucket and sponge rather than a hose to clean your car
  • Look for leaking loos and get them fixed
  • Turn off taps when not in use
  • When it’s time to empty the paddling pool use the water to water your plants
  • Water plants in the evening with a watering can – it’ll be more effective as less water will evaporate

 

Organise and protect your community against the worst impacts of climate change

Finally, communities can think about reducing flood risk. For nature-based solutions to be implemented, local conversations can spark discussions about climate resilience locally. Our Natural Flood Management work in Clarborough and Southwell was initiated by a group of locals demanding local flood action.