Image: Andrew Hill
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) called a drought summit as parts of England struggle with groundwater levels lower than they were in 1976, a year that will bring back memories of standpipes and severe water shortages. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman invited water companies, farmers and wildlife groups to discuss the situation affecting southeast England, East Anglia and the East Midlands. The meeting looked at "preventative measures" that could be taken now to tackle a drought.
Speaking after the drought meeting Ms Spelman said: "Ensuring we have enough water this summer is vitally important, and that is why I called the summit. Drought is already an issue this year with the South East, Anglia and other parts of the UK now officially in drought, and more areas are likely to be affected as we continue to experience a prolonged period of very low rainfall."
Ms Spelman added "As a keen gardener myself, I know that this is the time of year when people start to turn their minds to what they should be planting in the Spring. We know now that it's been a dry winter, and there may be some restrictions on water use in the summer so gardeners like me need to start working out which plants such as some Geraniums, Calendula or Lavender would be best suited to drier conditions. It's also important that they consider whether there's anything more that they can do to capture and save water, so that they and their gardens escape the worst of any drought conditions."
Thames Water's sustainability director Richard Aylard said: "Much of southeast England already has got a drought situation. The worrying thing is we've had such little rain the groundwater stores that we rely on to keep the rivers flowing are very low. There is a high chance we will need restrictions at some stage this summer unless either we get a lot of rain or fantastic co-operation from customers using less water." Thames Water says people can save water with simple measures, such as turning off the tap while cleaning their teeth or taking shorter showers, fixing leaks and only washing full loads of laundry. This may be hard task as a recent survey of Thames Water customers revealed that 45% of them thought it was unlikely or very unlikely the region would face a drought this year.
The average rainfall this winter has been lower than the months preceding the severe drought in 1976. The worst affected areas are the east of England, the Midlands and the South East. The River Kennet in Wiltshire has dried up completely west of Marlborough. The River Chess in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, is also dry. The amount of water in the River Lee, which runs through Hertfordshire and north east London, is only 24% of its usual level while the Kennet is only 31% of its average level. The Environment Agency has begun moving fish out of some rivers because of the low levels of water, which is an unusual step to take in February.
Water company figures show that London and the Thames Valley have received below-average rainfall for 18 of the last 23 months. Southern Water has applied for a drought permit to enable it to restock Bewl Water reservoir in Kent, which is only 41% full. Anglian Water said some reservoir levels are 20% lower then normal. Anglian spokesman Kieran Nelson said: "We need months of torrential rain, to be quite honest."
The regional chairman of the National Farmers' Union, Andrew Brown, said "People are already starting to alter their cropping procedure. I was talking to a farmer at the end of last week who said he was going to plant 20% fewer root and vegetable crops. Now that means for him a £50,000 hit."
Here are some top tips to help gardeners deal with the potential drought which may come in useful if we don't see much rain in the next few months: