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Water companies face up to East of England drought

Water companies in East England this week rejected suggestions that they would need to impose supply restrictions after the region was declared a drought zone.

Warnings of “complacency”

But other organisations warned of complacency amid growing concerns that water shortages will soon apply.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency announced last week that Lincolnshire, western Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and parts of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire were officially in a state of drought (see map).

The announcement followed a sustained period of dry weather with only localised showers.

Anglian Water and Cambridge Water said they had enough water to get through the summer and that there was no threat to public water supplies in the drought affected areas.

Water industry trade association Water UK said that the companies’ confidence was due to good preparation and investment.

“In previous years, companies have invested heavily in their infrastructure to increase its resilience to extreme weather,” it said. “The water industry has worked exceptionally hard, following one of the coldest winters ever, to reduce leakage. Companies’ focus has been on ensuring security of supply for customers.”

But the Environment Agency said the situation could worsen if the dry weather continues, with drought threatening areas nearer Sheffield and Birmingham.

Last summer, north west water company United Utilities imposed its first hosepipe ban in 14 years (NCE 7 July 2010), but the Environment Agency said this week that north west England − along with north Wales − was one of the only regions which did not have a higher than normal risk of drought this summer.

Severn Trent Water is one of the more concerned water companies and is in an area of particularly high risk. It admitted that hosepipe bans were increasingly likely, but said no decision had yet been taken and that the situation was “under constant review”.

“Whether a drama turns into a crisis will depend on what happens over the next few weeks”

Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith

“There is an increasing likelihood of water restrictions in some parts of the region, unless we see a return to seasonal average rainfall within the near future,” the company said.

“It will take more than a few showers to ensure reservoir levels throughout the summer.”

A spokesman said rain over several days and weeks was needed to top up reservoirs. Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith said the coming weeks were critical.

“Whether a drama turns into a crisis will depend on what happens over the next few weeks,” he said.

But beyond the next few weeks, there is concern that the threat to water supply could be felt in the longer term.
Experts warned that this year’s exceptionally dry spring could set the scene for an increased risk of drought next year, if the coming winter is also unusually dry.

Groundwater reliance

University of Reading senior meteorology and climate lecturer Suzanne Gray said Anglian Water and Cambridge Water’s confidence about their supplies came from the availability of groundwater and supplies from
aquifers, which will have been replenished over the winter.

But if they rely heavily on those sources this summer, they will depend on high rainfall levels this winter to remain resilient against drought next year, she said. “The winter rainfall is key.”
Water UK agreed, and warned that “if the coming winter is very dry, the situation may change significantly for some companies next year”.

Gray also warned that the dry spring could increase the risk of flash flooding over the summer, because dry ground conditions are likely to increase levels of surface run-off if a downpour occurs.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman announced last week that she would hold a second drought summit with water industry leaders to consider what more can be done. The first was held in mid-May and led to closer monitoring and dissemination of information about the drought problem (NCE 2 June).

Readers' comments (1)

  • Barry Walton

    This goes back to the old chestnut of the EA opposing rational resource development while they were not satisfied with Companies' efforts in reducing leakage. Those two aspects of the business of providing sufficient potable water should never have been so linked and what is now being faced is an inadequate resource capture not an indequate resource in an increasingly efficient but less and less robust industry. After the Yorkshire 'drought crisis' Ian Byatt noted that the problem was not lack of water but lack of system flexibility. Providing that flexiblity meant that local drought consequences could be alleviated by water transfer but of course would stress a wider resource base. The successful campaign of tuning was bound to result getting close to the wall if not actually hitting it. As the population grows expect things to get worse.

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