England could see a drought last into next year following the driest summer for 50 years, a senior Environment Agency (EA) figure has warned.
John Curtin, executive director for local operations at the EA, said it would take “weeks’ worth of rain” to replenish water sources.
Some areas have been almost completely deprived of rainfall all summer, prompting the National Drought Group (NDG) – made up of representatives from the Government, water companies, the EA and others – to move parts of the South West, parts of southern and central England, and the East of England into official drought status following a meeting on Friday.
The announcement could lead to more measures such as hosepipe bans, however, the EA has reassured the public that essential water supplies are safe.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World At One, Mr Curtin said: “Mainly it is a signal that this is not a normal summer now, so that water will be an issue and probably will be an issue for months ahead, depending how the winter goes.”
He added: “It all depends on the weather I’m afraid. There will be heavy showers probably Monday, Tuesday next week.
“But please, don’t think that will stop the drought because we’re talking about… we’ve lost a week’s worth of rain and it’ll take weeks of rain, we’ll need probably average or slightly above average rainfall this autumn into this winter for us to not be in a drought next year.”
At a meeting earlier this summer, the NDG moved most of England into “prolonged dry weather” status, the first of four stages used to describe its response.
Eight of 14 areas designated by the EA have now moved to “drought”, the second stage, including Devon and Cornwall, Solent and South Downs, Kent and South London, Herts and North London, East Anglia, Thames, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, and East Midlands.
The change has also prompted the EA to urge people to use water “wisely”, while it expects water companies to fix leaking pipes as quickly as possible.
Mike Keil, senior director of policy, research and campaigning at the Consumer Council for Water, which represents the interests of water and sewerage consumers in England and Wales and is part of the NDG, said the move was a “signal”, adding: “We’ve got to step up here, this is a serious situation, it’s a challenging situation.”
Three water companies – Welsh Water, Southern Water, and South East Water – have all imposed hosepipe bans, while Yorkshire Water has announced a ban will start on August 26 and Thames Water is planning one in the coming weeks.
Conditions have been described as “absolutely tinderbox dry”, with fires breaking out across the country, including one blaze at Leyton Flats in east London.
Meanwhile, the National Fire Chiefs Council, said wildfires were “likely” but brigades were “well prepared and have plans in place” to respond.
It comes after the driest July on record for some areas and the driest first half of the year since 1976.
The total stock of water in England’s reservoirs at the end of July was 65% of its normal capacity – the lowest level for that point in the calendar year since 1995, the EA said.
The most recent data showed rainfall totals for August have ranged from 12% of the long-term average in north-east England to 0% in south-east and south-west England.
Meanwhile, river flow data revealed almost 90% of measuring sites were showing below-normal readings, with 29% classed as “exceptionally low”.
River conservation charity The Rivers Trust said only 14% of rivers in England are in good ecological health, meaning they are not able to withstand the additional heat stress and low flows caused by drought.
The RSPCA has warned animals like newts, frogs and toads could struggle to find water during the drought while the RSPB said it was a “really concerning” situation for birds, which face dehydration and habitation disruption.
The heat and dry conditions have also taken their toll on agriculture.
According to the National Farmers Union, crops such as sugar beet and maize are showing signs of stress from a lack of rain, while crops relying on irrigation, such as field vegetables and potatoes, are also facing problems.
The UK is set to continue to see scorching temperatures, with a Met Office amber weather warning for extreme heat in place for parts of central and southern England and Wales until midnight on Sunday, with temperatures as high as 36C on Saturday and Sunday before returning to the low 30s by Monday.
Thunderstorm weather warnings are also in place for Scotland and Northern Ireland on Sunday, before extending to also include Wales and north, central, and south-west England on Monday.
Despite the risk of “torrential downpours” during storms, Met Office meteorologist Steven Keates said: “It’ll take more than a couple of wet days to redress the effects of the long dry spell we’ve had so far.”