Winter freeze spells drought this summer

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Much of England has suffered five months of below average rainfall over the past year, a drought report from the Government's new Environment Agency warns today.

Serious shortfalls in reservoirs and underground rock aquifers have resulted, but the problems were made worse by bitterly cold winter weather, says the report sent to John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Freezing conditions led to a spate of burst pipes, which meant that across most of the country more water had to be put into the mains than during the previous winter, further stretching the impoverished supplies.

This April had just over 70 per cent of the long-term average rainfall for the month in England and Wales. Since February last year, only September, December and February have had above average. November had exactly the mean and every other month was well under.

If there is another hot, dry summer, then half the country is likely to be put under hosepipe or non-essential use bans, says the agency, which protects the natural water resources of England and Wales.

Furthermore, a dozen water companies are expected to seek permission to take extra water from rivers and boreholes.

Even with average summer rainfall this year, five companies - Yorkshire, North West, South West, Southern and South East - are planning to extend existing drought measures or take additional action. The report does not anticipate any rota cuts, standpipes or tankering operations. But it warns farmers in East Anglia that there are likely to be restrictions on spray irrigation of crops.

However, it says the water companies have learnt from last year's drought, and praises them for spending hundreds of millions of pounds to boost their supplies and distribution networks over the winter. But it warns them not to delay in bringing in restrictions on customers if the drought continues.