Most of England, outside the northernmost counties, is now in drought and the dry spell could last until Christmas and beyond, the UK Environment Agency was to announce yesterday, as government officials started planning for a long-term water shortage that could spell disaster for wildlife, the landscape and farming.
Large swaths of the Midlands and the southwest have entered official drought status, meaning water companies in those areas can apply to place restrictions on water use for households and businesses. This could mean an extension of the hosepipe bans in the south of England.
The drought now extends from Cornwall to Kent, from East Anglia to Shropshire and Herefordshire, and as far north as Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and north Yorkshire. Even parts of Wales — normally one of the wettest parts of the UK — are reporting ill-effects from the dry spell. The smattering of rain in many areas over Easter gave little respite from low river flows and falling groundwater levels.
While rain over the summer and autumn could alleviate the water shortages, officials are planning for a third dry winter in a row, which could devastate wildlife and farming. Only a very wet autumn and winter could prevent the drought stretching into next year, because soils are so dry they will need a prolonged heavy soaking to recover, and reservoirs across much of England are so low that they will take a long time to recharge.
Trevor Bishop, head of water resources at the Environment Agency, warned the outlook was bleak.
“A longer term drought, lasting until Christmas and perhaps beyond, now looks more likely — and we are working with businesses, farmers and water companies to plan ahead to meet the challenges of a continued drought,” he said. “While we’ve had some welcome rain recently, the problem has not gone away, and we would urge everyone — right across the country — to use water wisely now, which will help to prevent more serious impacts next year.”
Households and businesses in areas not yet badly affected, and not under hosepipe bans, are also being urged to save water.
The state of restrictions varies widely. While most of the southeast is under a hosepipe ban, the southwest — despite being now officially in drought — has more reservoirs and fewer people.
South West Water has no plans for restricting usage, because its reservoirs are at 84 percent of their capacity.
Farmers, particularly arable farmers and vegetable growers, are facing a difficult summer as decisions have already had to be made on what to grow this year, and further restrictions such as curbs on abstracting groundwater will become more likely if the drought continues.
Wildlife is being hard hit across the south of England, with little that can be done for many species. Amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts are particularly at risk, as their breeding season has been hit by the drying out of ponds and ditches, and fish have died in large numbers because they have been trapped in diminishing pools as the river flow has fallen.