Drought FAQs

The UK is experiencing prolonged dry weather and unsurprisingly, this affects our canals, rivers, reservoirs and groundwater supplies. Here are some of the more common questions put to us at this challenging time.

Drought Drought

What’s the current water resources position?

The vast majority of the Trust’s 2,000 miles of waterways are currently still open for boaters to enjoy as normal.

Extremely dry weather since May had depleted canal water resources, initially in the North West and then in some other areas. The below average rainfall meant that the reservoirs weren’t able to recharge at a sufficient rate to provide for the summer’s boating in some places.

Recent heavy rainfall in the north has eased the situation and, although it will still take significant rainfall for reservoirs to fully recover, we are now able to reopen many of the canals that were temporarily closed to boats in August and September.

While the situation has improved in the north parts of the south have seen limited rainfall and some of our reservoirs are still lower than we would expect for this time of year. We’ve therefore put in place some restricted opening times at key locks in order to make the best possible use of our water resources and enable boats to get to where they need to be.

Which canals are affected?

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal has largely reopened however there are restricted opening times in place at some locks. The Wigan Flight is closed while lock gate repairs are carried out on locks 73 and 81 but works are expected to be completed in time for the October half term holidays.

The Peak Forest and Macclesfield canals are set to open on 6 October once works on the Bosley flight at Lock 11 are completed. Locks will be open each day between 8.00am and 1.00pm for the first week and then, subject to water resources, will reopen fully the following week.

The Huddersfield Narrow, Caldon and Rochdale canals have all fully reopened – although the latter is still being closed overnight at Hebden Bridge to preserve water.

In the south the rainfall has been much lighter and so we’re still seeing some challenges with water resources. To make best possible use of water we’ve introduced restricted opening times on some locks on the Oxford Canal and Grand Union Canal – including the Leicester Line and Northampton Arm.

The situation can vary according to local conditions, so boaters should check for the latest stoppage notices on our website.

What is the Canal & River Trust doing about it?

Where recent rainfall has not significantly improved our reservoir holdings we’ve reluctantly had to introduce restricted opening times at some locks to make the best possible use of our water and enable boats to get to where they need to be.

For more detail on the restrictions please see our national closures map 

Why have you chosen these locations for restrictions/closure?

The locations for the restrictions and closures are where we get most benefit for saving water, while allowing as much of the canal as possible to be open. Decisions are based on local conditions, taking into account a raft of evidence such as reservoir holdings, water levels, weather forecasts, and environmental impact.

Will the towpaths remain open?

Although we’re restricting the time that boats can use certain locks the canals can still be used by anglers and canoeists and the towpaths will remain open for people - visitors and the local community alike - to enjoy.

Are any other navigations affected?

Currently more than 90% of our 2,000 miles of waterways are available for boaters to enjoy as normal.

Elsewhere on the canal network we are monitoring reservoir holdings, feeder inflows and canal demands extremely closely to understand the risks to other parts of the network.

What difference has recent rainfall made?

The rainfall that many parts of the country saw in September has not resolved the drought situation entirely, and many of our reservoirs are still below where we would normally expect at this time of year, however they have improved water resources enough for boats to get back on the move in many places.

Why have you reopened some canals but not others?

The rainfall patterns, catchment areas and particular features of each waterway, including the length of pounds and how they are fed, means that not every canal is affected in the same way.

While the north has seen some quite heavy rainfall and catchments have been more responsive the south has seen limited rainfall and so reservoirs have continued to be drawn down. Subsequently, in some parts, we’ve introduced restricted opening times at certain locks to make best possible use of water.  

Why are you still allowing farmers/customers to pump water out of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal?

All of our customers are located downstream of two river abstractions on the western section of the canal, and so they are not reliant on our summit reservoirs for water supply. June 2018 was a particularly dry month, where on average 0.5 Ml/d (around 2.5 lock fulls) was abstracted on a daily basis to meet all of our customer demands. On the busiest day 2 Ml (around 10 lock fulls) was abstracted, however there were also 6 days when no water was abstracted at all.

The total amount abstracted throughout June was 16 Ml/d (around 80 lock fulls).

The Trust has agreements in place with each individual customer, confirming the maximum daily amount that can be abstracted. We’re monitoring the abstractions closely during the current dry period to ensure there is no adverse impact on navigation. Where we judge this not to be the case, we are of course prepared to ask abstractors to cease taking water. 

What is the potential ecological impact of the low rainfall?

We are taking action now to conserve water levels in our reservoirs which in turn will provide a limited flow into the canals to minimise any ecological impact and protect wildlife. We will be monitoring conditions in affected areas because low reservoir and canal levels coupled with higher temperatures in summer months can cause problems such as algal blooms and low oxygen levels in the water. In some cases, we may have to consider fish rescues to move fish into areas we can protect.

Are planned works being brought forward while closures are in place?

Yes! The majority of our planned maintenance works take place during the quieter winter months, so we have brought some of these forward to take advantage of the closures and dry weather. This will hopefully limit disruption later in the season.

Bringing these works forward was only possible with the continued dry weather and were always subject to change.

Find out more here: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/notices

Day-to-day water management

Where can I find out about the water resource situation?

Our website is a great source of information on the latest water resource position and any boating advice/restrictions. Our water management team produces a monthly reservoir watch on the site, which gives details of reservoir holdings across the network. Or you can contact your local office to subscribe to notifications in a particular area.

How can boaters help to save water?

Boaters have an important role to play in efficient water management. You can help us by:

  • Sharing locks where possible and making the best use of the water available
  • Make sure paddles are fully closed once you’ve passed through a lock
  • Aim for minimal contact when navigating through locks by ensuring gates are fully open as you pass through. Even a single boat in a broad lock should open both gates whilst moving through. Pushing gates open using a boat can damage the gate lining, increasing its leakage

We ask that marina owners, particularly those with hire fleets, help encourage boaters to act responsibly with water.

We also need all canal users to be vigilant about vandalism, as we have had some huge water wastages this year through vandalism. Please call the police if you have any concerns or witness vandalism.

Why don’t you fix all your leaks?

The majority of water lost from the canal is through seepage and evaporation. The canal network is more than 200 years old and largely features a clay-lined canal bed which is not 100% watertight.

Sometimes, it is more cost effective to develop additional water resources (identify alternative sources of water) rather than tackle the most expensive leaks, especially when you consider that relining one kilometre of canal can cost well over £1 million.

While we have more water travelling through some locks than we would like, most of it remains within the canal system to feed demand lower down. In these cases, the lock leakage simply allows water to pass downstream, which is water that we would otherwise have had to feed via sluices and bypass weirs anyway.

Rest assured our technical teams look at these issues in detail and make decisions based on using our limited financial resources wisely. 

Do restrictions simply concentrate the same lock usage (and hence water use) into a shorter period?

No, our experience shows that where we’ve implemented restrictions of this kind in the past we’ve subsequently seen decreases in lock usage of 20-40%.

Why don’t you operate pounds brimming with water as the longer pounds could operate as a reservoir?

The loss of water from a canal pound due to leakage and seepage is the largest component of water demand on a canal system. Loss rates are at their highest during the summer, when soil is dry and water tables are low. The leakiest part of the canal lining is the top 15 cm (6 inches), because it is continually wetted and dried. It is also subject to holes or cracks formed by burrowing animals and wave action from boat propellers. So by increasing the operational level of a pound, especially in a drought, would greatly increase loss rates. During a drought, we actually aim to run pounds as low as operationally possible to reduce losses.

Why don’t you dredge reservoirs to increase their capacity?

We have a rolling programme of surveys to monitor the capacity of our reservoirs and these show that, generally, over a number of years siltation hasn’t been a significant problem. It is also generally accepted within the water industry that the removal of silt from reservoirs is considerably more expensive than creating new resources or reducing demand elsewhere. This cost means that reservoir dredging is very rarely cost-effective and, particularly so in this case given the results of our reservoir monitoring.

What are you doing to ensure water restrictions or stoppages aren’t needed in the future?

As well as responding to unfolding droughts, we also take a more strategic approach to managing future water resources. Our water management team is responsible for assessing the resilience of water supply and advising the business on the potential impact of proposed canal developments (e.g. new marinas) and investment required to supplement water resources.

The Trust reserves the right to object to or decline canal development proposals on the basis that they may have an unacceptable impact on the existing water supply. Unfortunately, we can never give absolute assurances to our customers about having enough water to get through every drought, regardless of the extent, duration and severity but we will do whatever we can to keep as much of the network as possible open.

What are your prospects for next year?

At the moment it is too early to give any confidence of the expected water resource situation for next year. We are hopeful the reservoirs in the north will continue to refill and start the season next year in a healthy position. However, this will depend on rainfall between now and then. For the south, the reservoirs are still being drawn down. Again, winter rainfall will be crucial to the refill of our reservoirs in the south. The Trust are closely monitoring the situation.

It should however be noted, the resource position at the start of 2018 was healthy. It was the extremely dry summer months, which resulted in the lack of reservoir refill and reduced river flows during the season that lead to the closures in the north this year.

If you have anymore questions why not email our water team: water.information@canalrivertrust.org.uk

You can also download our Northern Water Resource Position Statement, which elaborates on water levels, specific restrictions and how everyone can help to follow our THRIFT campaign to conserve water.

Last date edited: 3 October 2018