Drought summit as rivers in England dry up

image captionCaroline Spelman, who chaired the summit, says people should start saving water now

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has hosted a drought summit as parts of England struggle with groundwater levels lower than in 1976.

She invited water companies, farmers and wildlife groups to discuss the situation in south-east England, East Anglia and the East Midlands.

Ms Spelman said beforehand the meeting was to work out "preventative measures" that could be taken now.

Anglian Water said some reservoir levels are 20% lower then normal.

Anglian spokesman Kieran Nelson said: "This year the recharge period started later, it's taking longer and it's going much more slowly. And that is a concern not just for reservoirs like this one but for the boreholes that we rely on as well.

"But we need months of torrential rain, to be quite honest. It might not be a popular thing to say but lots and lots of drizzle persistently over weeks is what we're going to need to get things back to normal."

Mrs Spelman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme many parts of the country had suffered their second dry winter and the likelihood of a hosepipe ban was greater this time around.

She said water companies had managed to reduce leakage by 36% since the 1990s, but there was still a danger of a water shortage.

One visible sign of an impending drought is the River Kennet in Wiltshire, which has dried up completely west of Marlborough.

Angling Trust chief executive Mark Lloyd said: "It's a pile of stones you can walk across in ordinary shoes."

Many rivers in south-east England have also dried up.

The regional chairman of the National Farmers' Union, Andrew Brown, said: "We've had a bit of snow but it takes 12 inches of snow to make an inch of rain.

"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. So it's a big big concern."

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) called the summit to discuss what measures are being implemented to tackle drought and to decide what actions need to be taken to mitigate against its impact in the future.

media captionAndrew Brown of the National Farmers Union calls for a national grid of water pipe networks, to enable water to be brought from west to east.

Last year the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, suggested in his column in the Daily Telegraph that canals and aqueducts be built to carry water from the north of England, which tends to be wetter.

He was the latest in a series of politicians and policy-makers who have suggested similar schemes.

Scotland has had its wettest winter for a century but Mrs Spelman told Today: "People often say 'well why don't you just build a pipeline from the North West to the South East?'. But it isn't that simple because water is heavy and costly to transport."

"But one of the things we will talk about at the summit today is improved connectivity between water companies as part of improving our resilience in the face of these conditions."

The wildlife charity WWF has accused the government of dragging its heels.

WWF's freshwater spokesperson, Rose Timlett, said: "This is a drought we've seen coming. Rivers ...have been dry since September 2011.

media captionDrought risk for England?

"Back then everyone agreed we would be in a serious drought situation if we had another dry winter, but not much has been done about it."

She said the government's White Paper, which was published in December, had some good ideas, such as licences to remove water, but these proposals might not be implemented for years.

The WWF supports water metering and other measures to cut water wastage.

But Mrs Spelman told Today: "Water meters can be helpful, particularly for households with a small number of occupants or a reduced income.

"But the most important is to save water. Everybody knows how to save water."

Water company figures show that London and the Thames Valley have received below-average rainfall for 18 of the last 23 months.

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.

Southern Water has applied for a drought permit to enable it to restock Bewl Water reservoir in Kent, which is only 41% full.

If the Environment Agency grants the permit it would also allow the company to take more water from the River Medway.

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