Businesses urged to improve water management, as Environment Agency warns of a possible drought this summer
Another period of "exceptionally low" rainfall during the final months of last year has prompted warnings of a potential drought next summer across south east England, with water companies in the region already taking precautionary action in a bid to mitigate the risk of shortages for homes and businesses.
The Environment Agency (EA) is warning that low amounts of rainfall over a prolonged period in 2017 has left groundwater supplies at reservoirs and aquifers in the region far below what would usually be expected for this time of year, giving rise to potential problems for both the environment and future water supplies.
Stuart Sampson, EA water manager, said the Agency was working actively with water companies, businesses, and farmers to mitigate potential shortages.
"It's been a tale of two halves," Sampson explained in a blog statement. "While the south east was drier than normal, in other parts of the country, rainfall has been higher than average, particularly in the north-west. Due to the time it takes to refill supplies, the UK's variable weather and its differing geology it is possible to have water shortages at the same time as localised flooding."
Although the south east experienced a relatively wet summer last year, underground aquifers - rocks which act like a giant sponge - only fill up from rainfall during autumn and winter when there is less plant growth and evaporation. October to March is therefore a critical 'recharge period' for water supplies, but rainfall was very low during the last few months of 2017, with only 35 per cent of the average expected rainfall in October and 50 per cent of the average in November, according to SES Water.
The company is therefore urging customers to use water efficiently and sparingly where possible.
"We are working hard to manage the water we do have, from installing new pipelines to move water around our network to finding and fixing leaks as quickly as possible," SES Water said in a statement on Friday. "However, the weather is the one thing nobody can control which is why our water efficiency activities and messages are relevant all year round to remind people that water is a precious resource - whatever the weather."
In addition, in order to prepare for next summer when water demand is expected to increase, Southern Water has applied to the EA for a precautionary drought permit to refill its Bewl Water reservoir in Kent, which is currently only 44 per cent full. Although this marks an improvement from last month when the reservoir was at an "exceptionally low" 33 per cent full, levels at this time of year should normally be closer to 75 per cent full, according to the firm.
Dr Alison Hoyle, director of compliance and asset resilience at Southern Water, said the dry winter weather depleted what would normally be a full reservoir, and the company was therefore seeking to top it up with water from the Medway river.
"Summer rains helped slightly but a very dry autumn and early winter makes it important that we use every tool at our disposal to ensure that Bewl refills over the winter," she said in a statement. "The reservoir is a key resource. As well as supplying our customers in the Medway towns, Thanet and Hastings, it is also used by South East Water. It is vital that we can put more water into it and we would like to see it reach levels of 75 per cent before the end of March."
Unless there is a wet start to the year, businesses across the south east and London can soon expect to face growing calls for them to actively step up water saving efforts. Although, given escalating climate risks now is as good a time as any for all organisations to review their water management strategies. No one can control the weather, but drought risks are still expected to become a common feature of the summer months for decades to come.
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