It's official: drought is over as the rain returns

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The Independent Online
Across England, a year of above-average rainfall has ended the drought, leaving reservoirs brimful, rivers with healthy flows and water tables rising. Even the water companies came close to accepting that water is no longer in short supply, says Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent.

With hindsight, the drought cracked last February when England and Wales had nearly half as much above the average rainfall for that month. That followed a remarkably dry January when the clouds delivered a meagre 17 per cent of the month's long-term average rainfall.

But that was the end of it. Seven of the past 12 months have had above- average rainfall. In the year up to the end of January, Meteorological Office records show that England and Wales have had 3 per cent above an average year's rainfall.

The rain has returned almost everywhere. Only one region, the rainy North- west, has had less than its average yearly rainfall over the past 12 months.

Most rivers have normal or above-normal flows for the time of year, the Government's Environment Agency says. The majority of the water companies are reporting that their reservoirs are fuller than usual for this time of year, with drought-prone Southern saying its reservoirs are 100 per cent full.

''There's no doubt that the substantial rainfall has brought to an end the historic, 30 months dry period,'' said a spokesman for the Water Services Association, which represents nine of the 10 big water companies. But it is still appealing for customers not to use water wastefully, and says that it is hoping for the next three months to have average or above- average rainfall in order for groundwater levels to return to normal everywhere.

In some places - such as Gloucestershire - they are now well above average for the time of year. But there are a few places where the water table in the chalk aquifers is still far below its normal level for late winter, including Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. "The drought is now reduced to a few pockets," said Terry Marsh, who monitors water resources for the Institute of Hydrology in Wallingford.

None the less, nearly 3 million people are still covered by hose-pipe or sprinkler bans, or both. Southern Water said it was "almost certain" to lift its sprinkler ban covering 800,000 people in parts of East and West Sussex within weeks.

Neither Essex and Suffolk Water, nor Sutton and East Surrey Water, in south London, have any short-term plans to lift their bans, which cover 1.7 million people and 270,000 respectively. Both said ground- water sources they relied on were still extremely low for the time of year.