Almost half of Britain's longest canal is to be closed in the face of drought conditions, British Waterways announced today.
Some 60 miles of the 127-mile Leeds and Liverpool Canal will be closed early next month, by which time the reservoirs which feed it are expected to have fallen to just 10 per cent of their capacity.
The closure to boating traffic aims to prevent the loss of water from the canal through the opening of locks, and maintain sufficient water levels in the waterway and reservoirs to protect the fish and other wildlife.
The canal will be closed to boating from Wigan, Lancashire, to Gargrave, North Yorkshire, from Monday 2 August, while the western end of the waterway will be subject to restrictions on when locks can be opened.
The water levels in the seven reservoirs which feed the canal would normally be expected to be around 80% of their capacity at this time of year, according to British Waterways, which manages 2,200 miles of canals and rivers across the country.
But with the UK experiencing the driest first six months of the year for more than 80 years, the reservoirs are now at 28% of their capacity and are expected to fall to just 10% by the beginning of August.
As a result, British Waterways said it would be forced to close off the water supply from the reservoirs to the canal using "stop planks" to better manage the impact of the dry conditions on wildlife and navigation.
The towpaths will remain open, but the organisation urged people to take extra care to stay away from the edge as water levels fall.
Vince Moran, operations director for British Waterways, said: "Canals depend upon a complex system of reservoirs and rivers to remain topped up with water, however the lowest rainfall in almost a century combined with high temperatures has left the region's water supplies at record low levels.
"We have been doing all we can over the last three months to conserve water levels within what is a popular and 200-year-old working canal, and we would only close it as a last resort."
But unless there was significant rainfall in the next fortnight, the water supply would have to be shut off, he said.
He said the restrictions were likely to continue through the current drought, but British Waterways would reopen the canal as soon as sufficient water supplies become available.
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Britain's longest man-made waterway, was constructed between 1770 and 1816 and carried coal, limestone, wool, cotton, grain and other farm produce.
It is now used primarily for leisure boating, walking, angling and cycling.