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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 February 2006, 08:38 GMT
Drought-hit region needing water
By James Clarke
BBC News, England

Bewl Water reservoir on the Kent/ Sussex border, about a third full in January 2006
Bewl Water Reservoir on the Kent/ Sussex border is only 37% full
Water shortages in the South East have become so extreme the Environment Agency wants five new reservoirs to be built in the next 25 years.

Reservoirs which would normally be more than 90% full in February are standing less than 40% full after more than a year of drought conditions.

Rainfall for January in the South East was about 25% of the average level.

Customers in some parts of Sussex and Kent have already been told they will face a hosepipe ban all this year.

Peter Midgley, the Environment Agency's regional planning manager for the South East, said: "We are in a major drought.

This year is going to be hard, this is the second consecutive dry winter and that means resources will be stretched
Meyrick Gough, Southern Water

"Too many of us are still behaving as though water is unlimited and cheap."

Figures from Mid Kent Water show people in the South East use an average of between 160 and 170 litres of water each per day, about 15 litres per head per day more than the North East.

Mid Kent Water's asset director Paul Seeley said: "One of the major factors that affects that is the number of people per house in the South East. There are far more properties with fewer people living in them."

Water companies across the South East are trying to convince their customers to cut down on their use of water.

Hosepipe bans are already in force or almost certain to be brought in later this year, while restrictions on non-essential water use, such as for jet washes or to water sports pitches, could be introduced.

How full are the South East's reservoirs?
Ardingly - 73%, normal February level - 100%
Arlington - 96%, normal February level - 100%
Bewl Water - 37%, normal February level - 92%
Darwell - 68%, normal February level - 87%
Powdermill - 80%, normal February level - 90%
Weir Wood - 36%, normal February level - 93%
Sources: Southern Water and South East Water, February 2006

Several firms are urging customers to have meters installed, hoping that charging according to how much water is used will prompt people to waste less water.

But the Campaign To Protect Rural England has criticised some water suppliers for failing to address rising demand and the impact of climate change.

Meyrick Gough, water planning and strategy manager for Southern Water, which serves 2.2m people in Kent and Sussex, said the drought in the area started in November 2004.

He said: "Before then the rainfall deficits were really about the average, but since then we've gone through 15 months when only three have been about average."

Bewl Water, Southern Water's largest reservoir, is 37% full, when the firm would expect it to be 92% full in a normal February.

Thames levels low

Despite heavier rainfall in recent days, other reservoirs are also well below average capacity and low levels in the River Medway have made it harder than usual to top them up.

Mr Gough said: "This year is going to be hard, this is the second consecutive dry winter and that means resources will be stretched."

Weir Wood reservoir near East Grinstead in West Sussex, 36% full in February 2006
Weir Wood Reservoir near East Grinstead was 36% full in February

Folkestone and Dover Water, a smaller firm which supplies about 160,000 people in Kent, has become the first company in the country to apply for water scarcity status.

It has had to prove it has exhausted all additional avenues for water sourcing, has done what it can to meet customer demand and will have problems with water resources for the next 10 years.

If the status is granted by the government - a decision is expected by March - the company would be allowed to impose compulsory charging by meter.

Managing director David Walton said: "A reservoir would be great but it would have to be so far from our operating area that metering becomes a more cost-effective option."

South East Water is also having problems with resources. The area it covers is split into two sections, with the largest reservoir in its southern region, at Ardingly in West Sussex, only 73% full at a time of year it would normally expect it to be full to capacity.

The firm's northern region - covering parts of Hampshire and Surrey - gets its water from the River Thames but spokesman James Grindell said the flow from the Thames is only at about 25% of the normal level.

The River Medway at Bailey Bridge near Aylesford
Water levels are also well below average in the River Medway in Kent

Mr Grindell said South East Water had produced an extra 35m litres a day since 1997, mainly through stopping leaks. The company is also looking into the feasibility of opening a new reservoir by 2010.

Water companies in the South East fear problems with shortages may get worse when plans to build thousands of new homes in the region are carried out, fears echoed by various environmental groups and councils.

The South East County Leaders Group, made up of leaders of seven county councils in the region, has said the house building plans will leave millions of families facing regular water shortages.

The plans, announced by deputy prime minister John Prescott in 2003, could see more than half a million new homes built in the South East by 2026.

Mid Kent Water and Kent County Council have combined to develop the Kent Design Code, which will see developers hoping to get contracts to build some of the county's new homes asked to prove their projects are designed to efficiently use water in areas such as showers and drainage systems.

But it is not clear yet how many local councils, the authorities which grant planning permission, will use the code.




SEE ALSO:
Water meters 'across South East'
09 Feb 06 |  England
Drought measures 'lack strategy'
10 Jan 06 |  England
Water supply doubt over new homes
26 Oct 05 |  Southern Counties


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