Over recent weeks and months the news media has regularly reported on concerns regarding the drought situation across parts of England. Notwithstanding increased rainfall over recent days, large parts of the country remain in drought. The previous 2 winters have been dry (rainfall levels at less than 50% of long-term average), which has caused insufficient winter refill of rivers, groundwater aquifers and reservoirs. This situation will not be remedied by a few days’ rain – prolonged rainfall over a period of weeks will be required to replenish water resources. Earlier this month saw the introduction of hosepipe bans (or temporary use bans, as they are correctly titled) by 7 water companies in the South and South East of England.

Notwithstanding the extensive media coverage, many people remain unsure of the meaning of the numerous phrases used in connection with drought status and restrictions on the use of water. So what does it all mean?

Drought zones

On 16 April, the Environment Agency announced that a further 17 areas of the country are suffering from drought. This means that those areas, and the ones previously designated as drought zones, have experienced an exceptional shortage of rainfall, such that there is either a serious deficiency of water in those areas, or such a deficiency is likely, or river levels are so low that flora and fauna which depends on the rivers is threatened.

The parts of England which are now in drought status are:

  • East Anglia
  • The South East of England
  • South and East Yorkshire
  • Nottinghamshire
  • Leicestershire
  • Derbyshire
  • Staffordshire
  • West Midlands
  • Warwickshire
  • Shropshire
  • Worcestershire
  • Herefordshire & Gloucestershire
  • Cornwall
  • Devon
  • Dorset
  • Somerset
  • Bristol
  • South Gloucestershire
  • Parts of Hampshire
  • Most of Wiltshire

However, this status does not mean that any restrictions on the use of water will automatically come into effect. The declaration by the Environment Agency of drought status serves to raise public awareness of the situation and reinforces calls from water companies and others to take greater care with water resources.

Temporary use bans  

A water company may impose a temporary ban on specified uses of water, generally by means of a hosepipe, previously known as a hosepipe ban. Those uses include watering a garden, washing a car, filling a swimming or paddling pool, and cleaning paths or patios. It is for the water company to decide which of the specified uses it intends to prohibit. The water company does not need to wait for the Environment Agency to designate the area as suffering from drought; the water company must be experiencing (or likely to experience) a serious shortage of water for distribution.

On 5 April, 7 water companies across South and South East England imposed a temporary use ban on their customers. Those companies are –

  • Anglian Water
  • South East Water
  • Southern Water
  • Sutton & East Surrey Water
  • Thames Water
  • Veolia Water CentralVeolia
  • Water Southeast

Outside the areas of these 7 water companies, the areas in drought status remain free of any water use restrictions, although the majority of water companies are encouraging customers to use water sensibly.

Drought permit

Where an exceptional shortage of rain causes or threatens to cause a serious deficiency of water in any area, a water company may apply to the Environment Agency for a drought permit. If granted, a drought permit may allow the company to take water from specified sources, or may alter or suspend restrictions or obligations to which the company is subject in its relevant abstraction licences.  Typically a permit allows the company to take greater volumes of water from rivers than would otherwise be allowed, to replenish reservoir levels.

A drought permit does not allow a water company to impose restrictions on its customers.

A number of drought permits have been in place over the winter. For example, Southern Water has a drought permit to help in refilling Bewl Water, which currently stands at 49% full compared to a normal level of 90% for this time of year. Anglian Water has used drought permits to assist with refill of Rutland Water and Pitsford reservoir; Thames Water is in discussion with the Environment Agency over 4 drought permit applications.

Drought order

In the same circumstances, i.e. where an exceptional shortage of rain causes or threatens to cause a serious deficiency of water, but also where a deficiency in the flow or level of rivers causes or threatens to cause a serious threat to the flora or fauna which is dependent on the rivers concerned, a drought order may be made. As well as water companies, the Environment Agency can seek a drought order, application for which is made to the Secretary of State.

A drought order can authorise alterations to water resource management, similar to a drought permit. An order can also authorise a water company to impose restrictions on the use of water by its customers. These restrictions are similar in nature to those under a temporary use ban, but apply to non-domestic/commercial uses of water rather than domestic uses.

Emergency drought order  

This is the most serious form of water use restriction, available where there is a serious deficiency of water supplies caused by an exceptional shortage of rain, and the deficiency is likely to impair the economic or social well-being of people in the area. If an emergency order is made, a water company is authorised to supply water by means of stand-pipes or water tanks. Measures of this severity have not been seen in England and Wales, other than in response to localised unplanned interruptions to supply, since the drought of 1976. Many water companies’ service levels describe such measures as unacceptable; no company anticipates imposing such restrictions more frequently than once every 100 years.

Other steps  

Water transfers: Much publicity has been generated by the proposal involving Severn Trent Water, Anglian Water and the Environment Agency to transfer water from the Midlands via the River Trent for abstraction in Lincolnshire.

Agriculture: Farmers have been requested to reduce their levels of abstraction.  Summer restrictions on abstractions have been brought into effect earlier than usual.

Canals: To reduce water losses, British Waterways is restricting the times when locks can be operated on the Oxford, Grand Union and Kennet & Avon Canals.

What next?  

Over coming years we will see greater use of short distance water transfers to support local water resource management. Long distance transfers remains uneconomic, due to the cost of moving water and its carbon impact.

In the short term, greater care with use of water will get us through the summer.  However, another dry winter would compound the current difficulties, possibly requiring more innovative solutions for summer 2013.

Before then, hopefully rainfall will continue at a steady rate. The ground is currently very dry, and has lost its sponge-like capacity to absorb surface water – a heavy downpour would therefore pose increased risks of flash floods!