England prepares for drought as winters driest for 80 years

Southern England is experiencing the worst winter drought since the 1920s, expected to worsen further in the spring and summer unless rainfall is well above the average in the coming weeks, new Met Office data reveals.

Hosepipe bans are already in place and new measures including compulsory water meters may follow, as water companies prepare for the worst.

“We’re in the middle of a drought – even if it rains from now until the summer, we will still have problems. Everything that both the water companies and that customers can do will make a difference,” Barbara Young, chief executive of the Environment Agency, told the BBC today.

The period from November 2004 to January 2006 has been the second driest since records started in 1914, and the driest since 1920-22, with just 724 mm of rain.

The prolonged dry spell has drained groundwater and reservoirs, the Environment Agency says. It has warned that urgent measures to conserve water are needed, or the public water supply and the natural environment will suffer serious repercussions.

Two drought permits are already in place, allowing the water company Southern Water to take more than its normal share of supply to make up for drought-related shortages in reservoirs.

The installation of compulsory water meters is being considered in the Folkestone and Dover area, particularly hard hit by the drought.

In response, the industry association Water UK outlined extra measures that may come into play in the spring and summer:

“It is very likely that, if rainfall remains at or below average, the industry will extend the scope and reach of the current restrictions. Hosepipe bans could be introduced into new areas and restrictions beyond households brought into force.”

“The intention would be to reduce non-essential use for example by business and local authorities. This could include the washing of windows or buildings and watering in parks and sports grounds,” Water UK said.

Apart from the threat to public water supply, effects of drought include increased pollution in rivers, as levels of oxygen dissolved in water plunge. In still water the growth of algal blooms is fuelled, while away from rivers and wetlands crops and trees may die.

By Goska Romanowicz

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