Drought stays, despite June's record rainfall

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Summer will be restarted next week, but the sun's long-awaited comeback will again raise the spectre of drought.

As the Meteorological Office forecast hot, dry conditions with temperatures as high as 24C (75F) next week, water companies and the Government's Environment Agency said that shortages were far from over. More than 2.5 million people are under hosepipe or sprinkler bans with no immediate prospect of them being lifted.

But people could be forgiven for being sceptical about the drought continuing. The Met Office says that June was the wettest since 1860, with more than double the average rainfall for the month. May, too, had well above average.

According to the Environment Agency, the flow in 22 of its 33 "indicator" rivers in England and Wales this week was above average for the time of year. So are reservoir levels across most of the two countries. Large tracts of north-east Scotland have been flooded.

After the wet, wet May and June the water companies can no longer claim that the last two years have been the driest since rainfall records began in the 18th century. The Met Office said that the 24-months beginning in July 1972 were drier. Furthermore, total rainfall in England and Wales over the last nine months - which includes the crucial winter recharge period for reservoirs and groundwater - was only 9 per cent less than the long-term average for this period. Four of the nine months had above- average rainfall.

However, the water companies say heavy rainfall has come at the wrong time of year; the dry soil and fast-growing plants of summer prevent the recharging of the aquifers which supply 40 per cent of England and Wales' tapwater. Throughout the drought-prone south and east of England, the areas most reliant on groundwater, the water table is low for the time of year and at record lows in many locations.

"We check aquifer levels at seven boreholes, and there has been no recovery at any," said a spokeswoman for Southern Water, whose sprinkler ban along the Sussex coastline covers 826,000 people.

"There's no way we can say the drought is over," said Mike Walker, head of policy for the Water Companies Association representing the smaller firms. It would only end once winter rainfall recharged the aquifers. The two other companies with sprinkler or hosepipe bans are Sutton and East Surrey, covering 280,000 people and Essex and Suffolk covering 1.5 million.

Nevertheless, the summer rain was very welcome because it had cut customers' demand for water by one-quarter compared to the same period last year, eking out reserves.

Floods in and around Elgin, in Grampian, subsided yesterday leaving devastation behind. All but a handful of the 1,200 families evacuated from their homes managed to leave council-arranged temporary accommodation but most had to bed down with relatives or friends.

The wet and cold has imperilled the pea and runner-bean harvest, with growers worried that their pea yields could be cut in half by rotting vines and cracked skins unless warm, dry conditions return. The Met Office said that after some showers today next week would be warm, dry and sunny with the chance of thunderstorms at the end.