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Dry Weather Conditions

Volume 529: debated on Friday 10 June 2011

The House will be aware that the current dry spell has created one of the driest springs on record. Indeed it has been the driest spring across England and Wales since 1990 and the driest spring on record in south-east and central southern England. Today, the Environment Agency has announced a move to drought status for Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire and western Norfolk, triggered by river and ground water levels, and risk to the environment and to farmers. Most of the south-east (except an area covering central and northern London) is at risk of drought.

Some reservoir levels are below normal for the time of year and ground water levels are in decline as we expect at this time of year. But it is our rivers that are seeing the greatest impact. The majority of rivers across south-west, central and eastern England have below average river flows with some experiencing exceptionally low flows.

These low flows are impacting on farmers that rely on spray irrigation during dry spells in the growing season to water their crops. Water for spraying is abstracted from our rivers under licence and conditions attached to those licences have meant that some farmers have had to stop taking water for irrigation. In addition, a small number of notices have been issued to prevent abstraction for irrigation to protect the Romney Marsh site of special scientific interest.

I have been monitoring developments closely and held a drought summit last month with the farmers, water companies and environmental groups, to hear first hand the impacts on different sectors and to agree actions that could be taken. The Environment Agency will report back later this month on the situation and potential impacts on water supplies, farmers and the environment. Natural England is also meeting conservation groups on 14 June and will report back to me on actions to reduce the impact on wildlife. A further meeting is taking place today with representatives of farming, water and energy companies and environmental groups to consider actions that can be taken in the short-term to make their water go further and to look at actions to build resilience in the future. I shall convene a further drought summit later this month to review progress and consider what further actions we may need to take.

We are working closely with farmers, growers and their organisations as they monitor the situation. Wherever possible, the Environment Agency is working with farmers to encourage voluntary restrictions on water use before imposing formal restrictions on spray irrigation. More widely, the agency has worked with water companies and water users to develop plans that minimise the risk of short-term restrictions on water use.

For those areas that have moved to drought status, the Environment Agency is working with water companies to remind people and businesses to use water wisely. Natural England has issued guidance to farmers and is ensuring that appropriate environmental stewardship derogations are made available to farmers in agri-environmental scheme agreements as a result of drought-related conditions.

Most water companies are reporting that they have sufficient reserves and do not predict the need for restrictions on use. Just one, Severn Trent, has informed its customers that restrictions may become necessary should the dry weather continue. Water companies have statutory drought plans that set out how they will manage the impacts of a drought. These plans include early triggers to bring all available water sources into supply before restrictions are imposed on the public water supply. Should there be a need to conserve water for the public supply then water companies may impose temporary restrictions on certain non-essential uses of water to help reduce the likelihood of more stringent demand restrictions that impact on customers and businesses.

Householders can get good advice on how to make best use of water from their water supplier, and from Waterwise ( Water companies are increasing their engagement in this respect.

The “Natural Environment” White Paper, published on 7 June, announced our intention to reform the water abstraction management regime to provide clearer signals to drive investment decisions to meet water needs and protect ecosystems. The “Water” White Paper, due to be published in December, will provide further details.

I will continue to monitor the situation and will keep the House updated if there is any material change in the situation.