Half of Britain is now officially in drought, in the worst national water shortage since 1976 – a situation that may last until Christmas or beyond.
Seventeen more counties have been given drought status by the Environment Agency. The map of Britain is now divided by water problems, with Scotland, Wales and the North-west of England drought-free, but the rest hit by poor river flows and low groundwater levels.
Seven water companies, led by Thames Water have had hosepipe bans in place since the Easter weekend. The Environment Agency said public water supplies in the newly affected areas are unlikely to be restricted this summer, but a lack of rain is beginning to take its toll on the environment and farmers – causing problems for wildlife, wetlands and crop production.
In the Midlands, agency staff have rescued fish from the river Lathkill in the Derbyshire Peak District after it partly ran dry, while the rivers Tern, Sow, Soar and Leadon reached their lowest levels in history in March.
In the South-west, rivers are also suffering, and nationally important chalk streams, such as the Hampshire Avon, which supports valuable trout and salmon species, are exceptionally low. About 20 million litres a day are being pumped into local river catchments to top up the low flows by Wessex Water. It says it has no plans to impose restrictions on use, such as hosepipe bans, but urges customers to save water.
The Agency warns the drought could last beyond Christmas. Rain over the spring and summer will help to water crops and gardens, but it is unlikely to improve the underlying situation.
"We are working with businesses, farmers and water companies to plan ahead to meet the challenges," said Trevor Bishop, the Environment Agency's head of water resources.
It was hoped that a prolonged period of rainfall between last October and March would prevent widespread drought, but parts of England received less than 60 per cent of the average winter rainfall. There are hopes that a rainy winter in 2012-13 will restore groundwaters, but the Agency is taking no chances.