Rain dampens the threat of cuts to homes

Drought in Yorkshire: Public inquiry to go ahead today as embattled water company applies to use emergency powers
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Rain over the weekend has averted the threat of water cuts for 600,000 people in West Yorkshire for the time being,Yorkshire Water said yesterday.

But a public inquiry will go ahead today at which the embattled company will ask for an emergency drought order, giving it powers to cut off households in Halifax and Hudders- field for 24 hours in every 48.

Yorkshire Water's woes were added to yesterday when it was revealed that it was one of three of the big 10 water companies being investigated by the industry regulator.

Ian Byatt, director-general of the Office of Water Services (Ofwat), has questioned Yorkshire, South West and North West about alleged failures to meet agreed standards.

Two-thirds of Yorkshire's 4.5 million customers are now covered by hosepipe bans - largely ineffectual now that garden watering has stopped. About 1.5 million, one-third, are living under more severe restrictions granted by earlier drought orders from the Government. These restrict inessential uses of water such as car washing.

But the gravest threat is to the residents of the Kirklees and Calderdale districts of West Yorkshire, covering Huddersfield and Halifax respectively. The area is heavily dependent on upland reservoirs with limited storage capacity. In March, these were full, but an extremely dry summer has been followed by an exceptionally dry autumn.

The company is hoping that, following the public inquiry, it will get permission to cut off zones in these areas 24 hours at a time. It had been expected to start the cuts next week if the emergency drought order is granted. Hospitals would be exempt, while nursing homes would be served by bowsers during the cut-offs.

Yorkshire Water said yesterday that following some rain at the weekend the rota cuts will not be needed until 1 December at the earliest. Continuous heavy rain is needed to start filling the reservoirs serving the two areas, which are only 11 per cent full. Yorkshire Water has stockpiled half a million two-litre bottles of spring water from nearby Buxton, intended for the elderly, infirm and other groups who would be hardest hit by the cuts.

But once the cuts begin, it will need much more bottled water; it intends to supply up to 1 million litres a week. The bottled water is not suitable for making up baby's milk from formula; that should be boiled beforehand.

Leaflets are being distributed warning people that it will be essential to boil all water used for drinking and food preparation if the cuts begin because tap water purity could no longer be guaranteed. Public health officials have said there is a threat of widespread dysentery and food poisoning unless people follow the hygiene guidelines.

A fleet of 200 road tankers is bringing water - 25,000 tons a day - from east Yorkshire, which has no drought, to Halifax and Huddersfield. Temporary pumping stations and pipelines have been installed, and in some places the usual flow along large mains has been reversed.

Yorkshire has a grid system to distribute water round the region, but it is not designed to move water from the higher and usually much wetter west to the dry east. The company is also planning another tankering operation bringing water from Northumbria to Leeds, whose reservoirs are also at low level.

The rota cuts would be unprecedented in England, Wales or Scotland, although a few thousand people around Cookstown in Northern Ireland had overnight water cuts from early August to early October due to the drought.

For several months Yorkshire Water has been appealing to people to cut their water use by a quarter and now uses television advertisements. It says it is deeply disappointed with the public's response to the gathering crisis; at most consumption has been reduced by one-tenth.

During the cuts the company intends to pay pounds 3-an-hour for an emergency squad of supervisors and school cleaners who will use buckets to flush school lavatories. ``They won't have to flush after every child,'' Clem Rushworth, of Calderdale education authority, said. ``It's a question of being there and using their common sense.''