Water firms seek new curbs on use

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Full drought restrictions are imminent in south-east England with three water companies having sought legal powers to ban non- essential use.

The watering of public gardens, parks, cricket pitches, bowling greens, allotments and other open spaces could be outlawed this summer if the Government grants the drought orders, sought by the companies because of what is now the driest spell in the region for more than 70 years.

Southern Water, Sutton and East Surrey, and Mid-Kent water firms asked permission yesterday from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to introduce the potentially wide-ranging restrictions, which could also affect car washing and the filling of privately owned swimming pools. The firms are increasingly anxious to conserve water resources as the South-east is suffering the driest 15-month period since at least 1933. Many aquifers [water tables] are severely depleted.

Individual water companies have the power to impose hosepipe bans, but a drought order requires permission from the Environment Secretary under the Water Resources Act 1991.

Paul Kent, the regulatory manager forSouthern Water, said: "We are not entering into this lightly. We need to conserve the water so that it is sufficient for basic hygiene throughout the rest of the year." He said it was possible that similar bans would be necessary next year and said water companies were ready to change their long-term policies if it seemed that global warming was permanently reducing rainfall.

Paul Butler, Mid-Kent Water's managing director, said it was "essential" that the powers were granted by Defra if water levels remained depleted.

The severity of the situation was underlined yesterday when eight water companies in the South-east joined the Environment Agency in asking for the public's help to conserve supplies. At Bewl Water reservoir on the Kent-East Sussex border, a website - www.beatthedrought. com - was unveiled which advises people how to conserve water, by taking steps such as turning off the tap as they brush their teeth.

Howard Davidson, the Environment Agency's regional director, said the South-east had had only 74 per cent of average rainfall since November 2004. "In only four months of the 16 months since November 2004 have we had rainfall above average," he said.

Three Valleys Water, which serves three million people in Essex, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, north London and Middlesex, is the latest company to announce a hosepipe ban, starting in its case on 3 April. Britain's biggest water company, Thames, has announced a similar a ban, affecting eight million customers. Sutton and East Surrey Water, South East Water, Southern Water, Mid Kent Water, and Cholderton and District Water are also imposing bans.