On this day in history : 6th August 1976 – Harold Wilson’s Labour Government passes the Drought Act to tackle the ongoing drought in the United Kingdom….

Lyme Regis Beach, Dorset August 1976 – Image credit : Trevor Rickard CC BY-SA 2.0

Many of us will remember the summer of 1976 only too well…. The parched gardens, cracked land, dry reservoirs and the standpipes…. The melting roads, overheated cars – even Big Ben broke down…. The crops that failed in the fields, the trees that died through lack of water and the heath fires that killed so much wildlife…. Fish died in the rivers and birds died due to the stagnant waters…. Warmth loving insects thrived, such as the Dutch Elm beetle, causing the demise of yet more trees…. Large numbers of aphids and greenfly in turn attracted swarms of ladybirds….

The years of 1971-75 had seen the lowest rainfall in any 5 year period since the 1850s…. Then between May 1975 – August 1976 it had been the driest since records began in 1717…. In the winter of 1974-75 the jet stream shifted north of the Hebrides where it stayed for most of 1975-76 before moving up close to Iceland, which is about as far north as it can go…. The jet stream determines our weather and as a result the whole of Western Europe was affected by drought….

The summer of 1975 had been warm and dry with lots of sunshine and was followed by a drier and milder than normal winter…. By the spring of 1976 reservoirs were only half full and still rain failed to appear…. By the beginning of July it was becoming obvious that water was going to have to be rationed…. Slogans such as ‘Save Water, Bath With A Friend’ began to be bandied around….

Burrator Reservoir, Devon July 1976 – Image credit : Crispin Purdye CC BY-SA 2.0

On the 3rd of July 1976 the Emergency Powers bill was announced and this was followed by the Drought Act on the 6th of August…. Hosepipes were banned and ‘Serious Emergency Powers’ enabled the authorities to reduce or even turn off domestic and industrial water supplies…. Generally this was not necessary – but in South East Wales, where the Brecon reservoirs had dried up, mains water was switched off for 17 hours per day…. By the end of August London had just 90 days worth of water left….

This was followed by an Autumn so wet that the potatoes rotted in the fields…. Global warming was not a phrase familiar to us back then….

Seathwaite Tarn, after the Summer of 1976

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