First the drought – and then the wettest April in history

Man dies in flash flood as Tewkesbury residents fear a repeat of 2007’s devastation

Jerome Taylor,Jane Ryan
Tuesday 01 May 2012 02:02

A man and his dog drowned yesterday after their vehicle was hit by a 5ft wall of water on the last day of what has become the wettest April on record.

Click here to see the UK's flooding map

The unnamed 52-year-old man was attempting to cross a ford near the village of Headley, on the Hampshire -Berkshire border, when a flash flood swept his car away. Witnesses said a woman, who was driving the car, managed to swim to safety but the man was unable to escape.

The tragedy struck as residents living next to swollen rivers up and down the country nervously watched the skies. A total of 31 flood warnings and 173 flood alerts were in place yesterday for much of England and Wales as ground soil struggled to absorb the recent heavy rainfall after what has been an unseasonably warm March.

The Met Office last night said that an average of 121.8mm of rain had fallen across the UK in the past 30 days, the highest amount since records began in 1910. The new measurement smashes the previous record of 120.3mm set in 2000 while the average rainfall expected during April is normally just 69.6mm. The latest figures are the culmination of two months of unusual weather in which March was deemed the third warmest and fifth driest on record.

Despite the recent downpours Britain has been struggling with two years of below average rainfall that has led to widespread drought and the recent introduction of a hosepipe ban. Even with the current levels of rain, minister have warned that more is needed to ensure that the country's reservoirs have enough to last through the summer.

For residents of Tewkesbury, the prospect of further downfalls provides little comfort. The inhabitants of the medieval town, which was devastated by flooding five years ago, were on tenterhooks yesterday after the Avon and Severn rivers broke their banks and began closing in. Three people died and thousands had to be evacuated in 2007, and many residents were fearful that the same fate could befall the town again if the rainfall continues.

Fields leading up to Tewkesbury were yesterday inundated by muddy flood water, which was last night threatening to spill on to the streets. April Wallace, landlady at Ye Olde Black Bear pub, which lies close to the river, has been nervously eyeing the rapidly rising water level.

"The water really is quite high at the moment," she told The Independent. "It's not far off the bottom of the garden and that's a big concern."

Last time the flood waters came she was forced to close for three weeks. "We've had no advice from anyone yet on what we should do if the water keeps rising," she said. "We're just keeping our fingers crossed."

The Environmental Agency has set up an incident room in the town to prepare for any repeat of the flooding of five years ago. But councillors said it was too soon to know whether any further downpours would have the same effect.

"I think ever since 2007 people are concerned but those who have lived in Tewkesbury for a while appreciate that this is an average level of flooding," said Mike Sztymiak, a local councillor.

"There hasn't been serious flooding for several years but every time we get some more rain than usual it does concern people. It is an anxious time but we'll just have to wait and see. Rain is predicted again this week... but we are hopeful that [the level] will go down. No one is putting up sandbags as far as I am aware."

Elsewhere, flood warnings were put in place for rivers across central England, the south-west and the Welsh Marches. Every river in Somerset has been placed on flood alert with water already encroaching upon parts of Taunton.

An Environment Agency spokeswoman said: "It's not unusual to experience heavy downpours and some flooding – mainly of farmland – at this time of year, but we're continuing to closely monitor the forecast and rainfall particularly in areas along the rivers Severn, Teme and Avon, including Worcestershire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire."

Environment Agency teams were yesterday checking defences in the affected regions and clearing any potential blockages to reduce the risk of flooding, she added.

In York, where the River Ouse burst its banks last week and remains 9ft above the spring average, officials said flood waters could rise once more after 10mm of rain fell in the Yorkshire Dales.

Q&A: Britain's weird weather

Q How on earth are we still in a drought if it's been the wettest April ever?

A It might have been pouring for the best part of one month, but we've had very low rainfall for best part of 24. In fact, this April has been only the fourth month over the last two years when we have had above average rainfall. There have been very long, very dry periods, and we still have very depleted water resources in general, with levels in some rivers, many reservoirs and nearly all aquifers (ground water) in the south of England much lower than normal. April might have been soaking but March, for example, was the third-driest March on record.

Q Then hasn't the last month's record rain had any beneficial effect?

A Yes it has. It has immediately made things easier for drought-hit farmers and gardeners and wildlife (especially nesting wading birds such as snipe and curlews), all of which is a blessing. And it has eased low flows in rivers, and brought levels up in some reservoirs. But crucially, there has not been enough of it to recharge ground water levels, which have sunk very low.

Q Why hasn't it recharged the ground water?

A To recharge aquifers in many areas there would need to be a lot more rain – believe it or not – and it would need to be at a different time: the so-called "winter recharge period" between October and April, when the rain that falls is less likely to evaporate in the sunshine or be taken up by growing trees and plant life. It does not help either that the ground has been compacted and impermeable because of the drought, and it is harder for the rain to sink through to the aquifers beneath. Instead, much more of it runs straight off into watercourses – one of the reasons we are seeing flooding at the moment.

Q So are we in for a very wet summer?

A Nobody knows. In April 2007, after the warmest 12 months in Britain's temperature record, everything seemed set for a summer of boiling sun and cloudless skies. Instead, in the May, the heavens opened and we had the wettest summer on record. Two years later, the Met Office calculated there was a 65:35 chance of a scorcher and predicted a "barbecue summer". It was a washout once again. The truth is, the weather is a chaotic system, its natural variability is infinite, and nobody can reliably predict it beyond about five days in advance.

Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

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