Defra minister Caroline Spelman discusses East Anglia drought at summit

Following the driest five-month period on record in East Anglia, a government minister said domestic households must join the battle now to help water companies cope with an impending drought. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.

East Anglia is emerging from its second dry winter in a row, and its driest five months ever recorded.

This is the time of year when precious underground reserves of water should be replenished, and rivers returned to their optimum flow.

Instead, the extended lack of rainfall has drained the reservoirs and boreholes containing the supplies we need to drink, cook, wash and grow food.

None of this comes as any surprise to farmers and water companies, who are already taking steps to cope with what they predict could be the worst drought in living memory.

But now Defra minister Caroline Spelman has said it is time for the public to get the message too – and play their part in saving precious water now before a parched spring and summer arrive.

'It is not just the responsibility of government, water companies and businesses to act against drought,' she said. 'We are asking for the help of everyone by urging them to use less water and to start now.'

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Mrs Spelman was speaking after hosting a crisis summit with the Environment Agency, Natural England, British Waterways, the Met Office and representatives from the farming industry in London yesterday.

The aim was to discuss the water shortages, listen to what measures are already being implemented, and decide upon actions needed to mitigate against future problems.

West Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire are already in drought, officially joined in that classification yesterday by the south-east of England.

The Anglian region saw 74pc of its average rainfall in January, leaving groundwater levels 'exceptionally low' with soils not wet enough for a 'recharge' to take place.

Only a widespread, prolonged deluge of above-average rain will correct the balance, but the Met Office has forecast only a 15pc chance of the next three months being abnormally wet – making water restrictions a possibility from the spring onwards.

At the summit, water companies at high risk of drought agreed to reduce water losses through leakage and co-ordinate temporary restrictions such as hosepipe bans where necessary.

Anglian Water spokesman John Clare said: 'We have made a lot of effort to combat leakage, with �14m invested this winter, and 60 additional staff. It is an enormous task but we have upped our game.'

'We believe that the solution to this problem is efficiency. It is about using less, but also making better use of what we have got. Water companies are doing everything we can. Government can lead and cajole, but when it comes down to it, everybody has to play their part.'

Mr Clare said that the idea of a national water grid would be too expensive, but more localised solutions were being investigated like the 40-mile pipeline across Lincolnshire from Covenham to Boston, due to be completed in 2014.

'Water, unlike electricity or gas, is a heavy commodity so to pump it across mountains would be a mammoth expense,' he said. 'But we are looking at opportunities to do that in more local ways, and we want to make the interconnectivity between our reservoirs better.'

Farming bodies called for a fair distribution of water for agriculture among the clamour for the dwindling supplies.

Brian Finnerty, spokesman for National Farmers' Union (NFU) East Anglia, said: 'The government can't make it rain but it can take steps to help alleviate the problems growers are facing in East Anglia. We made the point strongly that food security is as important as energy or water security, and needs to be allocated on an equal basis.

'Currently public water companies have a statutory duty to supply and therefore take priority over other users, including agriculture.'

Nicola Currie, East regional director for rural watchdog, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: 'Agriculture is under incredible pressure as a result of the lack of rain through the winter. The government needs to think about extending permitted development rights to build on-farm reservoirs. This could make a real difference during any drought, particularly using flexible abstraction licenses to allow efficient recharge of reservoirs.'

POTENTIAL IMPACTS OF DROUGHT:

?CONSUMERS:

The continued drought has raised the possibility of the first hosepipe ban for 20 years in the Anglian region, with the west of the area most at risk.

Anglian Water spokesman John Clare said: 'It means people won't be able to wash their car with a hose constantly running unattended, or leave a sprinkler on in their garden with no-one in control of it. You could still wash your car or water your lawn, but you would need to find a water-efficient way of doing it.'

Former Norfolk County Councillor Chris Hull, has installed a home-made system to harvest rainwater at his home on Neville Street in Norwich, where the run-off from guttering is collected in a butt to flush his toilet.

He said: 'It cost me �120 and it has reduced my bills by 35pc. There is a minority of people who worry from an ethical standpoint, but the majority of people will be motivated by saving money, which they can do very easily.'

?AGRICULTURE:

An estimated third of the country's potato crops rely on irrigation, especially to produce quality for packing for retail sale. Andrew Alston, chief executive of Broadland Agricultural Water Abstractors' Group, said some growers in west Norfolk had not been able to fill reservoirs because of very low river flows in the Nar catchment.

Arable and dairy farmer Henry Alston, of Billockby Hall, near Acle, has invested in a 50-million gallon winter storage reservoir to irrigate crops including 200 acres of potatoes. 'We're pumping each day from marsh drains but keeping a very close watch on water quality,' he said. 'We hope to fill our reservoir by the end of March but it is about 30pc of capacity at the moment.'

?NATURE:

The RSPB warned the continued drought could spell disaster for the region's much-loved wildlife. With East Anglia home to some of the UK's most important wetland sites, some species could struggle to survive unless the rainfall returns in the next few weeks.

Ian Robinson, from the RSPB in the Broads, said: 'The Broads is known for its lush, low, wet habitats and this lack of rainfall is alarming. At this time of year we normally have up to 35pc surface water flooding here on the reserves in the Yare valley, but we are currently at just 15pc.

'The grazing marshes on Berney Marshes provide valuable habitat for birds and wildlife. This habitat will not be ideal for them if the lack of rainfall continues and that will be disastrous for their breeding season.'

?LEISURE:

Basil Todd, proprietor of the Wensum Valley Golf Club in Taverham, said he was fortunate to have alternate water sources to keep his tees and greens in use.

'There is no problem here at the moment,' he said. 'But I think a lot of golf clubs who don't have their own supply of water will be in a muddle.

'We use sprinklers from May to August. If they stopped us using water then the greens at every golf club in the county would dry up. We cannot let that happen. But I have got lakes and ponds here and I have an abstraction license and a borehole. If they withdrew those licenses it would give me a problem.

'We are going to put a storage area in to catch all the roof water. That will be 100,000 gallons, which is enough to water the course for a couple of days.'

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