Water firms confident of defying the lack of rain

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The Independent Online
Rainfall continues to be way below average. The rivers are running low and slow, and the underground water table levels have sunk far below normal levels. But the water companies remain confident of getting through the summer without any severe restrictions.

Since February last year, there has been rainfall above the long-term average for just three months over England and Wales as a whole - in September, December and this February. November had exactly the average and every other month has had below the mean.

A dry June is following a dry April and May. So, with such shortfalls, and after last summer's widespread drought, why no severe shortages and water restrictions this year? Because since late last summer the worst- affected water companies have carried out emergency engineering works and taken extra water from rivers and boreholes to avoid the kind of public relations disaster that engulfed Yorkshire Water - which, at one point, was threatening to cut off entire cities for 24 hours at a stretch.

The water companies' total investment in boosting supplies, opening pinch- points and improving connections and flexibility in their limited regional grids has run to pounds 350m, according to the Water Services Association, which represents nine of the "big ten" regional companies.

They have also accelerated their work on cutting mains leakage, which was embarrassingly high for several companies.

But this extra spending is small beer compared to their existing commitments on renewing freshwater and sewer mains and improving drinking water and sewage treatment works.

The companies are not being allowed to raise their bills to pay for the extra work. And the experience has demonstrated how earlier shortages could have been avoided.

None the less, the small water companies, South East and Folkestone and Dover, and four of the big 10 -Yorkshire, North West, Southern and South West - have hosepipe and sprinkler bans covering a part or all of their areas.

Yorkshire also has ``non essential'' use bans covering millions of its customers in Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Barnsley, Harrogate and other nearby towns. These bans restrict car washes which do not recycle water, and the watering of sports grounds, parks and cemeteries .

The Government's Environment Agency says groundwater levels are below average across England and Wales, and at an all-time low near Brighton and north Kent.

Of 35 main rivers monitored, 18 have been found to be running below average, and six have less than half the average flow for this time of year. But 11 are flowing at above the average speed.

The Environment Agency says that South West customers served by Devon's large Roadford reservoir - now, just under half full - will face restrictions unless there is some decent rainfall soon.