Wet winter keeps the taps running

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The Independent Online
STEVE CONNOR

Science Correspondent

An exceptionally wet winter has prevented a water crisis developing for much of Britain despite one of the driest summer periods on record.

Heavy demand in the holiday area of the South-west, however, resulted in hose pipe bans being introduced in Cornwall yesterday. West Yorkshire, where extensive maintenance work on the water mains is under way, is also experiencing supply difficulties.

The Water Services Association, which represents the 10 water and sewage companies of England and Wales, said about 5 per cent of the population was suffering water restrictions of one sort or another on hose pipes and sprinklers.

''The situation is quite robust,'' a spokesman said. ''The problem is that high demand is causing difficulties with water pressure for some customers.''

The water companies are nevertheless keen to encourage people to conserve water because of fears that the dry weather may continue through the summer and into autumn.

The past four months have been the driest four-month period since the heatwave of 1976. There have only been six drier four-month periods this century. ''We've had a strange year,'' said Martin Lees, a hydrologist at the Institute of Hydrology, at Wallingford, in Oxfordshire. ''We had an extremely wet winter - the third wettest this century - followed by one of the driest four-month summer periods.''

Although the soils are exceptionally dry and many rivers are running very low, the underground aquifers, which supply many water companies in the south and east, and the reservoirs are ''reasonably healthy'' for this time of year.

The serious droughts that developed a few years ago, he said, occurred because of exceptionally low rainfall in the winter months. Rain falling in autumn and winter passes through the wet soil to re-charge underground water courses. But he warned: ''If the dry weather continues then we would possibly see some concern over reservoir levels in the North-west and South Wales.''

Although Britain is identified in the World Bank study as one of the top 20 water-rich nations, Mr Lees said the difficulties of our water supply arise because of the density of the population in the areas of the country with the lowest rainfall - namely the South-east. ''We do have plenty of water in this country but what is often not appreciated is the huge rainfall range we have.

"In Scotland we can experience up to five metres of rainfall a year, whereas in Cambridgeshire it can be as little as 350 millimetres.''

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