Last year was one of the worst in recent times for both flooding and drought in England, a study has found.
There were more than 5,600 flood warnings in England in 2019, more than in any of the last 15 years except 2012. Groundwater levels were lower than normal in 25 areas, more than in any year since comparable records began in 2006.
In 2012 there were only eight areas where groundwater levels were lower than normal. In 2014, another wet year, no areas recorded lower than normal levels.
Having both very wet and very dry weather is unusual but is likely to become more common as weather becomes more extreme as a result of climate change. People may begin to experience both water shortages and flooding, putting infrastructure under unprecedented strain.
Wildlife will also suffer, a group of conservation charities have said. They estimate that only 1% of current spending on flooding and drought goes to nature-based solutions such as restoring water meadows and wetlands, which can act like a sponge to store water under flooding and as natural reservoirs at times of drought.
The charities are particularly concerned that staff cuts and stretched resources at the Environment Agency and Natural England and in local government and other government agencies charged with environmental protection mean years like 2019 will stretch England’s resilience to breaking point.
Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “If funds for our water watchdogs dry up, the human and ecological effects of flooding and drought will grow every year. We need to get flood funds flowing to Natural England and the Environment Agency to ensure that good water management is part of the fabric of our landscape.
“The government should devote new cash to the agencies for natural flood mitigation, urban resilience, habitat enhancement and sustainable farming, plus vital functions like regulatory enforcement and spatial planning.”
Benwell said more heavy rainfall this spring would be likely to lead to further widespread flooding and damage to wildlife in waters and wetlands. This is due to exceptionally high river flows and groundwater levels, and soil saturation.
But if this summer is hot and dry, as in the drought of 2018, rivers would quickly cease to flow again in parts of the country.
Britain’s chalk streams, a natural habitat under increasing threat from extremes of weather, are likely to be among the worst-hit areas, said Ian Hepburn, of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
“Exceptionally serious drought and floods created a perfect storm for our waters and wildlife last year, with our globally rare chalk streams particularly badly hit,” he said. “Climate change means that without radical action many more years of flood and drought crises lie ahead. We need substantial, consistent and urgent investment from the government in our water watchdogs and natural flood and drought defences or our rivers and lakes, and the wildlife that relies on them, will continue to deteriorate.”
In the budget, the chancellor of the exchequer pledged to double capital spending on floods, from GBP2.6bn to GBP5.2bn, which the government said would protect an additional 330,000 homes. However, the new spending will not take account of ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs, and only a small proportion of the money is likely to be spent on the kind of natural flood management projects that conservationists say are necessary to protect wildlife and nature as well as homes.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We will continue to work closely with [Natural England and the Environment Agency] to ensure they have the right resources to continue to not only protect our natural environment but also improve it for future generations.”
Tony Juniper, the chair of Natural England, said: “Now more than ever, urgent action is needed to tackle the climate emergency and the government has been very clear about its ambition to tackle climate change and restore our natural environment. Nature-based solutions such as restoration of peat bogs and our marine sea grass beds will play a huge part in this and Natural England will be at the forefront of delivery. We are currently in discussion with Defra about next year’s budget for our existing statutory duties and for new work such as this.”