‘Very unsatisfactory’: Alarm raised over France’s groundwater levels

A dry 2022 and a record winter spell without rain has left 80% of France’s groundwater at ‘moderately or very low’ levels, according to a new report

A photo of a blue umbrella underneath a rain shower
It is unlikely that any rain forecast in the coming weeks will be enough to refill the ‘very low’ water table levels, researchers have said
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Drought conditions over the winter months have left the majority of groundwater reserves in France at ‘moderately low’ or ‘very low’ levels, meaning a ‘difficult’ summer ahead, researchers have warned.

A report from the Bureau des recherches géologiques et minières (BRGM) found the country’s groundwater level situation has “worsened and is very unsatisfactory”.

It said: “Most of the groundwater is at levels below the norm, and 80% of the levels are moderately low to very low.”

Hydrologist Violaine Bault, from the BRGM, said at a press conference that the next few months show “great uncertainty”.

She said: “[Changing trends] will depend on the rain [but] the refilling of stocks by spring remains difficult to imagine, as even the reactive groundwater sites (the most sensitive to water) are showing very low levels.”

The drought warning website Info sécheresse told a similar story on March 14.

Using data from its observation of 422 water tables, it showed:

  • 34 departments in the country are on a ‘red’ alert level (‘very low’)
  • 20 are on orange (‘low’)
  • 20 are on yellow (‘moderately low’)
  • 7 have a ‘close to the average’ level
  • 1 has a ‘very high’ level

Read also: Warm weather, drought and fires: why it may feel like summer in France

The situation is particularly tense in the north-east and south-east of the country, plus some areas in the centre. The Mediterranean area is particularly affected.

Some of these areas already have water restrictions in place as a result, including the departments of Pyrénées-Orientales, Bouches-du-Rhône, Var, and Isère.

The departments of Normandy and Brittany are also affected but to a lesser extent.

Read more: Drought map: See what water restrictions apply in your department

Some areas in the south and southeast are showing groundwater levels more akin to those usually seen in June and July, not March. The majority of the country is seeing levels more often seen in April or May.

Rainfall ‘won’t fix everything’

And, despite some rainfall seen in France over the past few weeks, this has not been enough to repair months of drought.

The BRGM report said that normally, autumn and winter rain is essential to refill the groundwater, but that the current levels are “very insufficient to compensate for the deficits accumulated during the year 2022.”

Hydrologist Emma Haziza told BFMTV: “This rain won’t fix everything. Only 10% of rainfall actually ends up in the groundwater reservoirs. This is a statistical anomaly, because we are normally supposed to be covered by rain, at least by Mediterranean episodes, but we haven’t had any this year.

“It’s a dramatic situation.”

Read more: This is how much rainfall France needs to end the drought

Christophe Person, head of weather and climate at BFMTV, also said: “Over the next few weeks, the rain will be helpful for the groundwater table. But it will be far from enough to fill the reservoirs before summer.”

Forecaster Météo France said that February 2023 had been the “fourth driest” in France since 1959, with a record 32-day spell without rain.

This period marked an especially “brutal stoppage of rain refilling”, said Ms Bault at the BRGM.

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