Summer of '76

A tin of beans was 13p and a new car less than £2,000. But in the summer of 1976, water was the equivalent of gold dust. Mark Duncan looks back on the drought that threatened lives, jobs and an entire economy

A tin of beans was 13p and a new car less than £2,000. But in the summer of 1976, water was the equivalent of gold dust. Mark Duncan looks back on the drought that threatened lives, jobs and an entire economy THE nights were sultry and at Barbarella's disco they were downright sweaty, as a pair of go-go dancers called Gin and Tonic entertained boppers in an atmosphere described as 'cosmic'.

Alternatively, you could find entertainment in Danny Willliams and Paul Melba at the New Hermitage and Carlton hotels. Or how about watching a new sitcom called The Good Life or listening to Stuart Hall laughing himself into apoplexy during It's a Knockout on your new colour telly - still a novelty in Guernsey?

A tin of baked beans was 13p and a can of Plumrose chopped ham and pork would set you back 24p. You'd pay #1,195 for a Citroen 2CV or you could spend #2,033 on an Alfasud and watch it disintegrate in front of your very eyes.

At Whitewoods, now Les Blancs Bois, they were offering new-fangled 'foreign' food such as veal cordon bleu and coq au vin, as well as dancing to A Touch of Class.

The summer of '76 was all that and more. But all anyone actually remembers about it was that it was hot. Really hot.

It's easy to understand the selective memories when you consider the selection of sideburns, aviator sunglasses, bell-bottom strides and flick-up hair-dos for women. I know. I've seen the photos.

That summer's drought was the most severe on record and one that didn't just inconvenience people but threatened the livelihood of many. It also cost the States Water Board its entire year's budget in the space of one month.

Despite the suffering, Guernsey residents proved the island could still work together as a community. Only eight instances of over-use from a population that then stood at 57,000 were reported during the whole crisis.

The Guernsey Evening Press's front page was normally dominated by the tomato industry and tourism, the island's two main industries, but the drought grabbed the headlines on an almost daily basis as water resources dried up.

The writing was on the wall. During the previous two years there had been water restrictions. By July 1975 the Forest Road water tower storage level was going down by a foot a day. Hosepipe bans were introduced, but rainfall boosted the raw storage and restrictions were lifted in October.

There was average rainfall for the remainder of 1975, but nothing significant following the new year and by April the board was twitchy about the levels.

On 23 April there were 368m. gallons in store - this from a total capacity of 525MG, the level normally expected in July.

'Diddy' David Hamilton was playing at the Birnam Court (now The Albany). Paul Burnett would follow. It was coming up to the regular summer season of shows and tourists would soon be arriving in big numbers. There was an industry to support, but April rainfall was the lowest since 1938.

'It is believed that there is a moral obligation upon every person to use water with the utmost care and for positively necessary purposes only,' announced the SWB.

Vineries and private householders started drilling boreholes, Volmatic and Fruit Export reported a big rise in demand for pumps, but even those boreholes and wells would dry up before the end of September.

Just as The Brotherhood of Man climbed to the top of the charts, asking people to Save all their Kisses, Deputy Roger Berry ascended to the position of board president and began asking people to save all their water for him.

It would be a baptism of fire for the young politician and one which would not be doused for many months. He took over from Deputy Ernest de Garis, a 31-year veteran of the board who retired on 4 May 1976.

Deputy Berry took to the job like the proverbial duck to whatever water was left, but admitted: 'I do not know how the island is going to manage. Drastic reductions will be the only way to maintain supplies. Supplies have never before been in such a critical state.'

He introduced a nine-point plan to help reduce consumption, including reducing pressure at the mains stopcock, brushing teeth without the tap running and putting pebbles in plastic bags to reduce the volume of water in toilet cisterns.

Prisoners were employed to bag up gravel for that purpose.

The washing of cars was outlawed completely and people were banned from using automatic dishwashers.

'We have got out of the habit of carrying water into the home. It will become habit again if we are not careful,' warned Deputy Berry as the threat of standpipes loomed - not a welcome prospect for the deputy, who said he would need 'an army of men to switch off 15,000 properties.'By now questions were being asked as to why Guernsey was in such dire straits. Financial constraints were blamed for the lack of foresight in collecting water. The board knew what had to be done but could not afford to do it.

With no hope of avoiding a state of emergency, Deputy Berry met the Bailiff, Sir John Loveridge, and on 20 May the emergency was declared.

No States-supplied water was to be used for cleaning aircraft, boats or shop windows. All consumers on meters would be rationed and hoteliers, glasshouse operators and other commercial outfits were told how much water they could use.

'Applications for swimming pools will be referred to the Emergency Council for comment,' said one report - and one can assume their reply would be short and to the point.

States Electricity was using 1.5MG of fresh water a month to cool generators, but was given dispensation to use untreated water from Longue Hougue quarry. This would later be used to top up fresh water storage, amid protests from neighbours.

Office accommodation faced a 50% cut in supply and educational establishments were cut back by 40% of their normal usage. Growers and farmers were forced to accept a 20% reduction, while tourism-based establishments faced a summer with a 30% reduction in water supplies.

Guernsey Hotel Association president Richard Cann said it would be impossible to control the actions of guests. 'If it came to standpipes, we would have to close,' he said. There were reports of cancellations from tourists who thought the island had already run out of water.

On 27 May it was decided to use Longue Hougue quarry to add to the water supply, despite fears about resulting landslips near surrounding properties and salinity levels above those recommended by the World Health Organisation. Its water was too saline for growers to use, but mixed with fresh, it would do.

In protest, quarry neighbour Kenneth Edwards daubed his house with red paint and accused the board of playing Russian roulette with people's lives, as he feared his house would disappear into the quarry.

Deputy Berry replied that the water had to be used now - later, there might be no fresh water left with which to dilute it.

Hairdressers cut down to one wash per customer, launderettes closed for several days a week, bakers struggled but Randall's Brewery carried on - it had been saving water for months and had the benefit of a well. Guernsey Brewery used a natural and constantly flowing spring but was annoyed when it offered use of it to the SWB, only to have the board describe this as 'peanuts'.

Water running to waste was a big issue and plans were hastily drawn up to catch streams running down Moulin Huet and La Charroterie and pump it into storage. In a heroic effort by engineers and workmen, the cistern at Moulin Huet was built, plugged in and pumping up to 55MG a day in eight weeks, a job which would normally have taken 18.

In early June the raw-water storage level stood at 297MG and thanks to the 'fantastic' response from the public, Deputy Berry announced that 'the island is now sailing a fine course, trying to avoid the rocks of ruin that would be encountered by the erection of standpipes, which would be disastrous to tourism and horticulture and the whole of Guernsey.'

A 40% reduction in usage had been achieved by the end of June.

An event that would normally guarantee rain, the South Show, was cancelled and there were fears for the West and North.

July was exceptionally hot and sunny and stream supplies started to dwindle. The lowest rainfall for the period between January and June was recorded since records began in 1843. Farmers and growers were beginning to struggle and market gardeners were suffering as cabbages roasted in the sun.

By 27 August there was only 166MG in storage, but on the 31st it finally rained - much to the consternation of hill-climb competitors, who struggled in slippery conditions, just as they had at the last climb: ironically the time before that it had rained.

The 'drought of the century' continued and on 10 September the board declared that there was enough water left for only eight weeks. Salt and silt levels were rising in wells and quarries, causing problems for pumps and filtration equipment as they dredged the last drops. Rationing looked likely for the whole of the winter.

On 13 September it rained. More fell in three days than in the previous five months, providing a brief respite for farmers and firemen, who had to turn their hands and pumps to floods rather than fires.

Deputy Berry was grateful for the rain, which produced 2.5MG, but warned that the island might have to choose between growing and tourism, as the board could not sustain another year at present water levels. Water-carrying ships would have to be used, at great expense. More than 100 wells and boreholes had now dried up and the board was investigating using German underground tunnels for water storage.

September's Billet d'Etat saw the board asking for more than #2.5m. to improve water services. Storage hit an all-time low at 163MG and was not helped by the discovery of oil seeping from rocks into St Saviour's Reservoir. Booms were set up to control the pollution and workers dug trenches to catch it. More than 100 gallons was collected before it finally stopped.

September's rainfall was more than double the average for the month but was still not enough for Deputy Berry. 'There will be no ray of sunshine as far as I am concerned until we pass normal storage,' he said.

That was reached sooner than expected, as in late September and early October a 'remarkable' quantity of rain fell. In the space of seven days the board managed to harness 46MG of water and levels rose quickly to 223MG.

The States approved the #2.5m. for improvements to the network and on 8 October the state of emergency was halted. By 13 October, cars could be cleaned and gardens watered, but the hosepipe ban would last well into November.

It was a long, hot summer, but as winter drew its cloudy shroud, so came the rain.

Storage levels rose to normal. Everyone could look forward to 1977, as bondage trousers replaced flares and Afros and perms gave way to Mohicans.

Water and punk rock were in full flow.

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