The Tanker Drought - 1995 to 1998

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The UK faced an extremely hot and dry summer in 1995 which lead to rapidly declining river and reservoir levels and water supply disruption.

Stocks Reservoir (north-west England), August 1995 © Mark Robinson

In 1995 the effects of a long, hot and dry summer were quickly seen in river flows and reservoir levels which meant areas that relied on water supplies from surface water resources particular in the north England, began to feel the effects. During the second half of 1995, northern water companies were regularly transported water by tanker across their regions to meet demand. By February 1996 reservoir groups in Yorkshire were still at critical levels and customers faced problems like low pressure and poor-quality of water.

Audio: Recollections of tankering water accross Yorkshire to fill reservoirs during the 1995-1997 Drought

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Weather

Rivers

Groundwater

Agriculture

Policy and Management

Memories

Weather

The winter of 1994/1995 was broadly wetter than average across the UK, but March to August 1995 were all dry months, August especially so (and it was a warm summer, allowing increased evapotranspiration). September was rather wet in many regions, but the months from October 1995 through to January 1996 were predominantly drier than average.

There were again several drier months during 1996, though February and November were exceptions. January 1997 was much drier than average throughout the UK, meaning that water stocks were not being replenished as they usually are during the winter; however February was wet, providing some relief. After a dry spring, allowing water supplies to become well below average, there was a wet June, but only from November 1997 onwards was there consistently more rainfall than average.

The plot below shows the monthly North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) Index for the periods before, during and after the drought. The NAO is a prominent teleconnection pattern in all seasons, and strong positive phases tend to be associationed with above-average temperatures in northern Europe, whilst negative phases of the NAO tend to be associated with below-average temperatures. There is more information available here.

 

 

Rivers

River flow deficits began to accumulate over the spring and summer of 1995 across England and Wales, with most UK catchments in drought by the September. Drought conditions across the UK continued throughout 1996, although western parts were less affected. In 1997, drought conditions were focussed in south-east England but by the following spring, hydrological drought has mostly terminated (although some long-term deficits in river flows still existed into the summer of 1997).

The duration of the 1995-1998 event ranks highly in the top 10 events in northern England, the Midlands, East Anglia and southern England. In these same regions, the event ranks highly within the top 10 for the mean deficit, in many catchments in northern and central England ranking as the most severe by this characteristic. This owes to the combination of a long event with some of the most severe drought minima seen within the 125 year period in these regions. Drought minima ranks within the top three events across northern England and the far north of Scotland, but was also ranked regularly within the top 10 across East Anglia and southern England. In terms of all characteristics, this event was not highly ranked in terms of duration, mean deficit or drought event minima in western parts of the UK although deficits in flows occurred coherently (to varying degrees) across the country in this period.

 

Groundwater

The groundwater drought of 1995-1998 affected large areas of the UK and was associated with greatly reduced groundwater recharge during the winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97. However, significant spatial variation in the degree and nature of the groundwater recharge across the UK during these two winters lead to spatially varying impacts of this prolonged groundwater drought.

Before the drought, groundwater levels in all the major aquifers were at or above the long-term seasonal average in the spring of 1995. The meteorological drought first effected northern England in the summer of 1995, with below average groundwater levels being recorded at Dalton Holme (see figure below) and Wetwang observation boreholes as early as June 1995. However, because of the relatively slow or delayed response of groundwater levels in the Permo-Triassic Sandstone aquifer of the north west of England groundwater levels didn’t fall below seasonal averages until between November 1995 (Skirwith) and January 1996 (Heathlanes) (see groundwater hydrographs below).

Apart from the south west of England (see the groundwater level hydrograph for Ashton Farm), the groundwater drought developed widely during 1996, with areas of the Chalk in the south east experiencing particularly low recharge over the 1995/96 winter (Marsh, 1995). New monthly minima were recorded towards the end of the summer of 1996, for example, a new minimum groundwater level for November was recorded at Dalton Holme in November 1996 (Marsh, 1995). Due to low recharge during the winter of 1996-97, groundwater levels were close to the seasonal minima at the start of the summer in 1997 with only 1979 and 1992 recording lower spring levels (Marsh, 1995). These exceptionally low levels persisted throughout the summer of 1997, particularly over the southern Chalk (see Redlands Hall and Stonor Park groundwater level hydrographs), although locally there was some recovery for example in the north east Chalk such as at Dalton Holme.

Recovery from the groundwater drought was also highly variable between the regions. The Chalk of the north east recovered to long-term seasonal averages during the winter of 1997-98. However, for large parts of the southern Chalk, and for the more rapidly responding Permo-Triassic Sandstone of the north west (such as Skirwith) recovery in groundwater was much weaker with levels not reaching long-term seasonal averages until the following winter of 1998-99 (see for example the Redlands Hall and Stonor Park hydrographs). At the very slowly responding observation borehole in the sandstones at Heathlanes, average groundwater levels were not re-established until autumn 1999.

Click images to enlarge

The lowered groundwater levels associated with drought led to reductions in the network of groundwater dependent streams particularly over the Chalk aquifer. The resulting ecological stress impacted macrophyte populations (Westwood et al. 2006); there was an associated increase in levels of nitrate (Morecroft et al. 2000); and algal blooms made worse by low flows and high temperatures effected water supplies (Ferguson et al. 1996) and caused problems with recreational water use (Everard, 1996). Despite these issues and the disruption of fisheries (Everard, 1996). Many of these acute issues were caused by high temperatures in the summer of 1995; however issues surrounding the long term depletion of water resources, such as the build-up and subsequent flushing of nutrients and the loss of the headwater stream network, were due to the longevity of the drought period.

Several water companies enforced Drought Orders (Marsh, 1995), for example, there were 97 drought orders over the 1995- 1996 period, and Yorkshire Water were forced to tanker water to some of their customers during the 1995 summer as a result of supply issues (Fowler & Kilsby, 2002). In response to the enforced rota cuts in supply, Yorkshire Water invested £50 million in a water transfer scheme from the River Tees to the River Ouse (Taylor et al. 2009). Other areas also installed new schemes, with the Suffolk Hartismere Resource Zone providing two new groundwater sources and improved infrastructure for transfer.

 

Agriculture

Impacts reported from across the country, but the East of England and South West were the most affected regions. Variable but generally low yields and quality for all crops, due to the drought. The dairy industry was badly affected by low milk yields and quality due to the high temperatures and grass shortages.

Grass shortages made farmers look for other options to feed their livestock, such as winter forage and straw. Because of the increased demand, fodder and straw prices increased considerably. Milk production and quality across Britain was seriously affected by the drought, leading to shortages for dairy companies. To cope with the 10% cut in milk production Milk Marque, the British dairy co-operative, invoked an emergency clause in August 1995 to reduce its supply to dairies to about 3% below the contracted volumes. Dairy Crest closed its Davistow cheddar factory for at least a month to divert the milk supply to the company's fresh milk diaries.

“Dairy farmers are urged to check milk protein levels as hot weather drives down feed intake of cows. [...] Not only are cows eating less in the heat, but herbage available is becoming stemmy and less digestible. Quality has fallen because grass is maturing so quickly” 'Protein warning as heat clobber cow appetites, Farmers Weekly, 4 Aug 1995, vol 123 (5), p 37'

Extracts from the Historic droughts inventory of references from agricultural media 1975 to 2012

Both voluntary and compulsory restrictions to irrigation abstraction applied in many regions. Threats of severe water shortages for irrigating crops were forcing potato and carrot growers to consider switching from rain guns to more water-efficient trickle irrigation systems. In the summer of 1996, voluntary restrictions were agreed between farmers and the EA, plus mandatory restrictions and total bans were imposed in the most affected areas. Voluntary restrictions rose by nearly 40% in two weeks in July 1996. Again in April 1997, restrictions were imposed on farmers in the West Midlands and East Anglia as they faced the driest conditions in 200 years. BAWAG (the Broadland Agricultural Water Abstraction Group) was formed in 1997 in the wake of this severe drought to represent 170 abstractors in two CAMS areas.

“Like many growers, his 60ha crop of Nadine potatoes has now stopped growing, yielding about 40 t/ha compared with an anticipated 64 t/ha. Much of this shortfall is being made good by the rapid increase in prices. In the past 10 days, the value of his crop, sold to wholesalers in Birmingham, has risen from £110/t to £212/t delivered”. 'Potato consensus: Rain would be too late now, Farmers Weekly, 18 Aug 1995, vol 123 (7), p 19'

Extracts from the Historic droughts inventory of references from agricultural media 1975 to 2012

 

Policy and Management

The first post-privatisation drought - further reform of the regulatory framework - Parliamentary debate highlights the environmental impacts of drought and Parliament grants new powers to the Environment Agency to issue drought permits.

During the summer of the year 1995, Parliament debated the adoption of the Environment Act 1995. This Act led to a series of changes in the regulatory framework for drought. The most important of these was the establishment of the Environment Agency, whose powers include issuing drought permits. More generally, the debate about drought management focuses on environmental impact and conservation. Droughts now start to be considered as an environmental problem rather than an unforeseeable natural phenomenon. While the regulatory changes were clearly connected to droughts, it appears that MPs discussed drought in abstract terns, rather than drew a connection to the specific drought experienced in 1995. Discussion about the need for infrastructure investment, including in the pipe network in order to reduce leakage is, however, linked to the drought experienced in Yorkshire between the summer and winter of 1995.

 

Memories

“And we were thinking one day about how can we get a quicker turn-round on these tankers and we thought for one of the reservoirs which was adjacent to the M62 we thought well, they were having to go about ten miles past, turn round, and come back down into a field to discharge and we thought well what if they didn’t have to do all of that? What if they could just discharge over the embankment? What if they just discharge over the side of the motorway. Well that would mean shutting the Motorway. Yeah, and the alternative is a lot of people go without water. Yeah but it’d mean shutting the Motorway. Yeah, well all these people. Anyway, after quite a bit of discussion, negotiations with the Highways Agency or whatever it was called in those days, one lane of the Motorway was shut overnight in order that the tankers could park on the Motorway hard shoulder and discharge directly into the reservoir. And this saved a significant amount of turn-around time. That’s how radical we were getting as to what we were prepared to do in order to maintain supplies.” HDOHPS0006RPGR

Audio: Recollections of tankering water accross Yorkshire to fill reservoirs during the 1995-1997 Drought

 

References and further publications