Environment: Downpours fail to end water crisis

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The Independent Online
Despite the torrential rain and floods earlier this month, water companies foresee restrictions this summer unless the next two months bring more downpours, as Kathy Marks reports.

Although this winter was one of the four wettest this century, underground water supplies in some parts of the country remain at an historic low, and hosepipe and sprinkler bans seem likely this summer.

The Water Companies Association, which represents the 17 suppliers in England and Wales, said yesterday that there was an east-west divide in terms of abundance of resources.

Areas west of a "Drought Line" drawn from the Wash down to the Isle of Wight, such as Bristol and South Staffordshire, have had high rainfall. Companies there also draw most of their water from surface reservoirs, which are fuller than average for the time of year.

Regions east of the line, such as Cambridge and Three Valleys in the Home Counties have had drier weather, and rely more on the underground stores, known as aquifers.

The three areas in which hosepipe and sprinkler bans are in force - Southern, Sutton & East Surrey and Essex & Suffolk - lie to the east. They are reviewing their bans. The other companies are confident that they will not need restrictions, though rainfall levels over the next two months will be critical.

Pamela Taylor, chief executive of the WCA, said: "If rainfall remains as high as it has done, there will be no problems. But if the weather returns to the normal drought patterns we've seen over the last 34 months, supplies will be put under severe pressure once again."

This winter, for the first time in three years, Britain has had three successive months of above average rainfall. Aquifer supplies - 42 per cent of the total - remain low because, with the soil dry after long periods of low rainfall, it can take up to 12 weeks for the water to percolate through. East Anglia, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire are affected most.

In an attempt to discover causes of the recent unusual weather, the WCA has commissioned Piers Corbyn, the long-range forecaster, to investigate possible links with global phenomena such as El Nino, the periodic welling- up of warm waters off South America. He said a pilot study suggested high rainfall in south-east England may be linked to it.