Lock closures to reduce water use in March and April are already affecting canal routes. At one time last year all five cross Pennine routes were closed with lock flights padlocked because of the dry weather. (See our News report.)

Reservoir low levels

In April CRT reported that ‘Due to low water levels between Locks 7 and 13 on the Rochdale Canal the navigation is currently closed’. The locks on the Yorkshire side of the canal stayed closed for a week, their use is currently restricted by limiting opening hours.

Over on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal CRT announced that ‘Due to the low rainfall which has resulted in the drawdown of the reservoirs, and with the forecast set for dry weather, the Trust will be implementing temporary restrictions to navigation between Barrowford Locks (45 to 51) and Gargrave (from below lock 30) effective Monday 29 April’.

In March had been stated that ‘After a relatively dry winter, following on from last year’s exceptionally dry summer – one of the hottest and driest on record – reservoirs feeding some parts of the Oxford and Grand Union Canals have not refilled as would normally be expected.’

CRT suggest boaters can help conserve water by:
Sharing locks where possible and making the best use of the water available.
Waiting for oncoming boats where appropriate.
Ensuring paddles are fully closed once they’ve passed through a lock.
Aiming for minimal contact when navigating through locks by ensuring gates are fully open as they pass through. Pushing gates open using a boat can damage the gate lining, increasing its leakage.

Most canals get their water from reservoirs and groundwater. Some, like the Llangollen and Kennet and Avon get theirs from rivers. According to the April CRT Reservoir Watch most Northern reservoir levels had recovered reasonably well over the winter from last year’s shortages but despite recent rainfall levels were falling rapidly by April (10% on the Leeds & Liverpool) which led to the restrictions. The Rochdale Canal has been short of water since its 2002 reopening because its reservoirs were sold off to local water boards in the 1920’s. Southern canals had recovered much less well over the winter. Even when reservoirs are fairly full if the water tables haven’t recovered there can be less groundwater coming into the system so more water gets drawn from the reservoirs.

Loss and silting of reservoirs, climate changes, leakages, silted canals and increased boating are all possible causes of the current shortages. Dredging is seen as one way to conserve water in the canals, especially on summit levels. Reservoir dredging, and disposing of the huge amounts of silt, is considered too expensive to be viable.

In 2015 CRT created a Water Resources Strategy  which listed 14 strategic actions. One strategy they highlighted was ‘Aspiring to a level of service of 1 in 20 years’. This they explained meant ‘we will maintain and operate the canal network so that drought closures are implemented, on average, less than once every twenty years, i.e. there is a 5% chance of a drought closure occurring in any single year’. For some canals, looking forward to a second summer of closures and restrictions, that already looks an unattainable goal.

See the CRT list of current stoppages and restrictions.

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