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For Southern England, the Grass Isn't Greener

With the region suffering its worst drought in 70 years, steps are taken to curb water use and improve infrastructure.

April 23, 2006|Alex Morales | Reuters

Kent, known as the Garden of England, is drier than Jerusalem.

Or Istanbul. Or Dallas. Rainfall in southern England this year is the third-lowest on record, robbing Kent of its lush countryside. Streams have vanished, and reservoir levels are plunging.

"You are looking at the prospect of the worst drought for 100 years in the south and southeast," Britain's environment minister, Elliot Morley, said in a telephone interview. "That depends on what the outcome of rain between now and the summer is."

Forecasters say precipitation will remain below average, prompting seven utilities to restrict water use for more than 15 million people. Residents are forbidden to use sprinklers or garden hoses in London, Kent and surrounding districts, and water companies are asking for government approval to ban nonessential water use by local authorities and companies.

There's also an effort to update infrastructure. Thames Water, which supplies 8 million people in the London area, is spending about $1.7 billion to replace 20,000 miles of leaky pipes. The Victorian-era pipes lose a third of the water sent from reservoirs to homes, according to the Birmingham-based Office of Water Services. "Thames Water is by far the worst offender for leakage among water companies in the U.K.," said Andrew Marsh, a spokesman for the Consumer Council for Water.

Southeast and central-south England received about 31 inches of rain in the 16 months through February, according to the Exeter-based Met Office, the government's climate forecasting arm. That's the driest such period since 1932-1934, with about as much rain as the region normally gets in a year.

Although the lack of rain hasn't affected farmers yet, "there are concerns for the summer," Sarah Whitelock, spokeswoman for the Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire-based National Farmers Union, said in a telephone interview.

Newspapers have said that tap water in some areas may be cut off and replaced with standpipes, collection points not used since 1976. Morley says the likelihood of using standpipes is "very low" because of improvements in water transport. Companies such as Thames Water need to "get a grip," he said.

"Get the flaming leaks fixed," said Michael Kiely, 53, a nurse, in an interview in London. "It's wrong: It's not the people wasting it, it's the way it's managed."

In few places is the drought as evident as at Bewl Water, the largest reservoir in southeastern England. On Dec. 28, Bewl was 34% full, the lowest since it was filled in 1975. The level rose to 55% on March 15, a time of year when it usually would be almost full.

"If you look at this concrete ring here, where the light meets the dark, can you see where the lichens are above the line?" asks manager Howard Mackenzie, pointing several meters overhead as he drives a boat around the reservoir's water abstraction and overflow towers. "That's basically out of the water; everything else ideally would be below."

Nearby Weir Wood's level sank to a record 28% in December, says Meyrick Gough, water planning and strategy manager for Southern Water, which is owned by Glasgow-based Scottish Power. Some aquifers also are near lows for the time of year, he says.

Thames Water, a unit of Essen, Germany-based RWE AG, in 2005 was one of two companies that didn't meet leakage limits. Thames' daily loss was 915 million liters, enough to fill more than 350 Olympic-sized pools. The ban on using hoses is the company's first in 15 years, Thames Water spokesman Robin Markwell says.

Water companies can apply for "scarcity status," which was granted for the first time by the government to Folkestone & Dover Water on March 1. The measure allows the utility to install meters to help customers monitor and reduce their water use.

As climate change threatens to bring longer, drier summers to Britain, companies must invest in storage capacity, Morley says.

Five reservoirs are planned in southern England, and three others may be expanded. For now, companies will struggle to fill reservoirs unless the weather is "exceptionally wet" during the next few weeks, says Glenn Watts, planning officer for water resources at the Environment Agency.

Forecasts indicate that rain in southern England will be less than average through the end of May, says Wayne Elliott, a meteorologist at the Met Office.

"The hosepipe and sprinkler bans that have been announced are going to be needed throughout the summer," Morley said. "I must be the only member of Parliament who cheers when it rains."

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