Water companies came under a fresh barrage of criticism yesterday as the National Rivers Authority passed its report on the drought to the Government.
In particular, the companies must make "vigorous efforts" to reduce leakage and set targets for fixing pipes, said the report which was produced for John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment.
Three companies suffering the most acute shortages - Yorkshire, North West and South West - have been asked to supply the authority with weekly reports so that the situation can be monitored and further action demanded if necessary.
The chairman of the worst-hit company, Sir Gordon Jones of Yorkshire Water, is to be questioned by ministers on Monday to discuss what further measures should be taken to avoid emergency drought orders.
But Labour hailed the authority's report as a vindication of the dismay it has expressed over the water company's records against the backdrop of annual profits of pounds 1.8bn.
It was in the light of the growing political furore that Mr Gummer last week demanded that the authority produce the appraisal of water supplies and the measures in hand to tackle the shortages.
While April to August has been exceptionally dry, water resources are generally better than in 1976, mainly because the autumn and winter were extremely wet leaving groundwater reserve and reservoir levels in a healthy state before the summer.
The authority commends the steps taken by many companies to reduce demand by imposing hosepipe bans and restricting non-essential supplies.
But it called on the Government to agree to water companies applications for further drought orders to restrict non-essential uses of water. Conversely, it will oppose drought orders to enable further abstraction of water from rivers and groundwaters where companies have not already taken adequate, and more than likely unpopular, steps to curb demand.
South West Water and North West Water were urged to make immediate applications for orders to cover non-essential uses, though even this measure would not necessarily prevent the need for these companies to seek further permission for additional restrictions. One of the major concerns of increased restrictions, says the report, is the disastrous effect that the reduced levels of rivers can have on wildlife and wetlands.
The Consumers' Association added that the report confirmed public fears over leaks. Colin Brown, Deputy Director of Research, said: "Investment is urgently needed to plug the leaks. A fundamental review of the water investment programme is needed, to make it effective and fair to all consumers. As things stand, it is neither."
Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, said yesterday: "Although the water crisis is not as bad at present as the Government have been suggesting, it could get worse. "The Government must not shy away from taking action to preserve water supplies for fear of unpopularity."
Leading article, page 14