Hosepipe ban demanded to stem drought

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Hosepipe bans for much of south-east England should be imposed immediately to limit the impact of one of the worst winter droughts on record, the Government's environmental watchdog has warned.

The Environment Agency has asked water companies in the South to ban hosepipes from next month to prevent more extreme measures being introduced this summer such as standpipes in the street and rota cuts in domestic supplies.

The agency said that the South-east was facing one of the most serious droughts for a century and water companies could not afford to be complacent about the low water levels in reservoirs and underground aquifers.

"Groundwater levels in some areas are the lowest on record and rainfall during winter has been the lowest since the drought of 1920-22," said Baroness Young of Old Scone, the agency's chief executive.

"We're seeing an impact on the environment, where fish-spawning in some areas has been poor, and we're concerned that we may soon see fish dying because of low river levels," Lady Young said.

Much of the country has experienced a drier-than-normal winter and, for the second consecutive winter, the South-east in particular has suffered exceptionally low rainfall.

The 15 months from October 2004 to January 2006 has been the driest period in the South-east since 1921, according to the Environment Agency.

Terry Marsh, a senior hydrologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), said winter rain was crucial to replenish underground stores which provide much of the drinking water for the South-east.

But the current drought is not likely to be as severe on a national scale as that of 1976, when much of the country had little or no rain for most of the summer after a dry winter, Mr Marsh said.

"In 1976 we had an extremely dry winter but now we've had two dry winters and it's most evident in a few chalk streams, where flows are currently just below those of 1976," Mr Marsh said. "We're seeing a drought that is pretty severe because it's not the sort of thing that happens every five years or so."

Mr Marsh supported the Environment Agency's call for stringent controls on water use such as a ban on non-essential activities such as washing windows and watering parks.

"If you're facing climatic circumstances that are as bad in some parts as anything we've seen since the 1930s, then restrictions in water usage are an appropriate response, both to preserve stocks for the public supply and to protect the environment," he said. A hydrological report by the CEH and British Geological Survey found that rainfall in January across much of the country was less than 40 per cent of normal levels, with some parts of the South less than 20 per cent below average.

"Last year, the same period was only marginally wetter and, taken together, they closely match 1962-64 as the driest successive November-January periods since 1932-34," the report said.

"Substantially drier 15-month periods have been recorded for England and Wales (such as in 1975/76 and 1933/34) but a distinguishing feature of the current drought is the disproportionate contribution of the winter months to the overall rainfall deficiency," the report continued.

"Correspondingly, the impact on reservoir and aquifer replenishment and on river flows has been severe in many areas."

Winter rainfall soaks through the soil to refill aquifers that have been depleted during the summer months.

With just a few weeks of winter left it is unlikely that there will be enough rainfall to avoid a summer drought in many parts of the South-east.

How it will affect wildlife

TREES AND WOODLAND: A summer drought after a winter drought will put all trees in danger.

GRASSLANDS: Most grasses die during droughts but can recover once the rain returns.

BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS: Most species do relatively well in a summer drought.

GROUND BEETLES: Some do well while others will be more affected by the drought.

SALMON: Adult salmon stay lower down river in droughts, which means mortality rates are higher.

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