Large parts of Britain are facing a drought this year after groundwater reached levels not seen for more than 35 years, which could spell restrictions for farmers and households.
Rivers, canals and reservoirs are running low after a second dry winter in a row, with some areas receiving less than 70 per cent of normal amounts.
Ministers were meeting last week with water companies, the environment agency, weather forecasters and agricultural bodies to see what can be done to mitigate its impact and prevent future droughts.
“Unfortunately… there is a high risk that parts of the country will almost certainly be in drought next summer,” Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said on her department’s website.
While Scotland has seen its heaviest rainfall since records began 100 years ago and Wales and northwest England have been relatively wet, other parts of England have had their driest 12 months on record, with central and eastern England particularly affected.
Two water companies, Anglian Water and Southern Water have been forced to apply for drought permits, allowing them to take water from new sources.
South East Water has applied for a drought order, which goes further and restricts the non-essential use of water. About 65,000 properties are at risk of standpipes or rota cuts to supply.
Unless England sees more rainfall, many more households face rationing, such as hosepipe bans, though authorities are not yet talking about people having to queue for water, as they did in many parts of Britain during a heat wave in 1976.
There is also a concern that food prices may rise if Britain’s wheat production is damaged, as well as other foodstuffs.
“While last year it was principally the farmers who were affected by the dry winter… I think it is more likely that the public water supply will be affected unless we have substantial rainfall between now and the summer,” Spelman told BBC radio.
She said a hosepipe ban had only been prevented last year because the water industry had invested in reducing leakages by 36 per cent since the mid-1990s.
The dry weather has led to a higher-than-average number of environmental incidents such as fish being rescued, algal blooms, reduced cereal and potato yields, wildfires, and navigation restrictions.