Millions face more drought this summer

Water shortage: Dry winter kept reservoirs low but regional firms pledge to maintain supplies
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The Independent Online
England faces a drought much deeper than last year. At a time of year when reservoirs should be near to overflowing after winter rains, they are only about two-thirds full or less across much of the country, due to far below average rainfall.

From now until next winter, there will be no further significant replenishment of the reservoirs or the underground aquifers on which much of the country depends. Nearly all rainfall from April to October is taken up by plants and dry soil.

Already, 13 million people served by five of the big ten regional water companies are subject to hosepipe bans. But despite the lack of supply, the worst since the drought summer of 1976, almost all of them are confident that they can get through even a dry summer without drastic measures such as the use of stand-pipes.

Yorkshire Water, the hardest hit last year, said there would be no need for any road tankering operations such as those which operated during the autumn and winter. Nor would there be any question of rota cuts, in which parts of large towns are cut off for 24 hours at a time.

Only North West Water hedged its bets on the need to take drastic measures if the summer did turn out to be extremely dry. "We have to make contingency plans - we would be remiss if we did not," said a spokesman.

The companies say they are in much better shape to handle a drought than they were a year ago because of a sudden burst of investment in building new pipelines, pumping stations and water treatment plants and in reducing leakage. According to the Water Services Association, which represents nine of them, this amounts to pounds 350m.

This was prompted by the criticism heaped on them by the press, public and opposition politicians last summer, and by the realisation that water resources might not recover over the winter.

The worst-affected companies, North West, Yorkshire, Severn Trent, South West and Southern, have all had to find new ways of moving water around their regions from places of surplus to areas of shortage, effectively boosting their local grids in the process.

Another tactic has been to seek drought orders from the Government, and now the new Environment Agency, which started work this month. One type of order allows them to pump extra water out of rivers during the winter, when flows are high, into reservoirs. Another type allows them to reduce the "compensatory" discharges from reservoirs into streams which maintains a healthy flow.

Jerry Sherriff, head of water resources for the Environment Agency, said: "By and large, those parts of the country that had a dry summer had a dry winter too. Rainfall has been very low for a long time."

But the vulnerable companies had planned for a dry winter and put effort into securing supplies, he said. The agency expects that if there is a dry summer, some companies will apply for further drought orders to take more water from rivers and reduce compensatory flows from reservoirs.

"We're not going to allow damaging the river and stream environments through low flows to be a soft option," he said. "Before we grant any such orders the companies will have to show us that they've tried to restrain demand from their customers."