Hosepipe ban in the pipeline after dry winter

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The Independent Online

Water companies are putting drought plans into place and have warned customers that there could be further water restrictions this summer because of low reservoir levels.

Water companies are putting drought plans into place and have warned customers that there could be further water restrictions this summer because of low reservoir levels.

An exceptionally dry winter is being blamed for one of the worst droughts in 40 years and at least 10 water companies are preparing to ban the use of sprinklers if there is not enough rain in June and July.

One company, Sutton and East Surrey, has already banned the use of unattended hosepipes and a second, Southern Water, is preparing to introduce its first hosepipe ban since the scorching summer of 1996.

Glenn Watts, the water resources manager of the Environment Agency, said much of England and Wales suffered lower than average rainfall between October and March.

Although rain in April was higher than average, it failed to replenish underground aquifers and reservoirs. For much of southern England, May continued to be a drier than usual month. "It was a really dry period between November and March and groundwater levels are low. There's already one drought permit in place and we're likely to see more drought order applications in the course of the summer," Dr Watts said.

In south-east England, which has the highest population density and has suffered the worst drought, average winter rainfall has been about two-thirds of its normal levels.

All of the 23 water companies in Britain have drought plans ready in case of emergencies and at least 10 of them are actively warning their customers about the need to save water, said a spokesman for Water UK, the industry association. "They are all thinking about drought and they will all be discussing it in their boardrooms. They hope that small changes by customers can do a lot in terms of saving water and that by taking action now they can avoid more severe restrictions later on," he said.

In southern Britain, much of the drinking water is drawn from underground aquifers and streams that are only usually replenished during the winter months when less water is drawn up by vegetation or evaporates.

However, an exceptionally dry winter - the driest in some parts of England and Wales since the drought of 1976 - has meant that, in some regions, underground water sources are only at half their normal capacity.

Water flow in many rivers in England and Wales is also lower than normal. South-east England has been particularly badly affected with the monthly flow rate running well below average.

"Both groundwater storage and river flows remain further below average in the southern England chalk areas which supply 70 per cent of the water for South-east England," said a Water UK spokesman.

If the summer is exceptionally hot and dry the water companies will almost certainly ask the Environment Agency for permission to extract more water from rivers and aquifers. That is bound to cause environmental damage to wetland areas, he said.

Rob Wilby, manager of climate change science at the Environment Agency, said that, in the past 30 years, there has been a change in weather patterns which has meant that more rain tends to fall in winter compared to summer. Dr Wilby said there are also signs winter rain is falling in more intense downpours which are less useful in terms of replenishing aquifers