Drought will be worse next year if water companies don’t fix leaks, Environment Agency says

A burst water pipe in Hornsey, North London, this summer. Water companies are under fire to fix more leaks - Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
A burst water pipe in Hornsey, North London, this summer. Water companies are under fire to fix more leaks - Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Drought in England could be worse next year unless water companies step up efforts to tackle leaks, the Environment Agency has warned.

Above average rainfall in October and November has meant that reservoir stocks are back to 68 per cent capacity following the driest summer months on record. The West Midlands has moved out of drought status, and several others have officially returned to normal, the Environment Agency said.

But if rainfall levels stay below 80 per cent throughout the winter, reservoirs and groundwater aquifers are unlikely to fully recover, which could see the South West, Yorkshire, the East, and South East of England at risk of drought continuing into next summer.

John Leyland, executive director of environment and business at the Environment Agency, said water companies and households would need to continue to be vigilant in preserving water.

“We cannot rely on the weather alone - if we are to avoid a worse drought next year, it will require action by us all,” he said.  “Over winter we expect water companies to fix and reduce leaks, identify new sources of water and work with farmers, growers and other sectors to protect our precious water resources should drought remain next year.”

Increased effort expected

The Environment Agency said it expected water companies to increase their efforts to fix leaks, including planning for pipe-freezing events that can cause leaks.

Most water companies have provisions within their drought plans to increase efforts to fix leaks across their networks. Around 20 per cent of the water supply is lost through leaks.

But the water companies have come under fire by consumer groups for failing to tackle these leaks during non-emergency periods - particularly as households have been forced to fit water meters and urged to cut down on their use.

The agency also called for water companies to continue telling households to save water, and Mr Leyland suggested that hosepipe bans which have been eased in recent weeks, may need to return to help reduce pressures on the water supply.

Last week, Thames Water joined Southern and Welsh Water to lift its hosepipe ban, but also urged its customers to continue with water saving measures including shorter showers. South East Water said it would soon follow suit in Kent and Sussex.

Ten of England’s fourteen regions are still in drought status, despite recent wet weather.

“The recent rainfall will be a relief for many, but we should approach the improving drought situation with cautious optimism,” Rebecca Pow, the water minister, said.

“I urge water companies to continue to plan their water resources and take precautionary steps to ensure water resilience.

“This includes emphasising to the public that water shouldn’t be taken for granted. The work of the National Drought Group is crucial in ensuring everyone plays a part in managing our precious water resources both into next year and in the long term.”

Variable winter forecast

Will Lang, head of situational awareness at the Met Office, said: “Winters in the UK usually include a wide variety of weather, and this winter looks to be no exception. Although we expect to see high pressure dominating our weather through much of the early winter, which increases the potential for cold spells, we could still see wet and windy weather at times.

“The risk of unsettled weather increases as we head into 2023 with wet, windy, and mild spells a real possibility.”

Elsewhere, money from fines handed to water firms that pollute rivers is to be ringfenced for schemes to restore the environment, the Department for Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced.

Since 2015, the EA has secured fines of over £141m with the money returned to the Treasury.

But under new plans, the funds would go to Defra for projects that could include initiatives to create new wetlands and planting vegetation on river banks.