Fears raised over potential August drought in Norfolk as hot and dry weather forecasted for weeks to come
Fears of a drought being declared across Norfolk have been raised, as forecasters warn the region's hot, dry conditions will continue for several weeks to come.
The Environment Agency (EA) has issued a fresh warning for people not to use water "unnecessarily", amid growing concern over the "exceptionally low" level of rivers across the country.
East Anglia has already been identified as a particularly vulnerable region, with Norfolk's Broadland river area, along with east Suffolk, both currently classed by the EA as experiencing "prolonged dry weather", the first of four drought categories.
If the hot and dry weather continues into August – as forecasters are predicting it may – it could see some places enter the official 'drought' category.
The last time areas moved into the second "drought" stage was amid similar conditions in 2018-19 and 2011-12.
It meant water companies could limit non-essential domestic and commercial water use, or apply for special permits to extract extra water from the environment.
On Tuesday morning, the EA hosted a meeting of the National Drought Group (NDG), bringing together officials from the Environment Department (Defra), water companies, Met Office, National Farmers' Union (NFU) and others.
Following the meeting, Harvey Bradshaw, EA executive director for the environment and chair of the NDG, said people can "all do [their] bit by reducing unnecessary water consumption and following advice from [their] water company to ensure this remains the case while our rivers are exceptionally low".
The EA said that potential measures going forwards, such as hosepipe bans, will be decided by individual water companies.
A spokeswoman for Anglian Water said it was not planning to impose a hosepipe ban in the region.
She said: "Despite a very dry year so far, our reservoir levels are stable, at around 80 per cent full, and our groundwater sources are in good shape too, so we're not currently planning any hosepipe bans this year.
"River levels are lower than average however, and we're already reducing the amount of water we abstract in order to protect the environment."
She added that during last week's record-breaking heatwave – which exacerbated the already dry conditions – the company had supplied a record breaking 1.6 billion litres to people across its region.
According to the latest EA summary, England has had just 10 per cent of its long-term average (LTA) rainfall for July, with the east and south east recording just 4pc of their LTA.
Stuart Colville, director of policy at industry body Water UK, said: "Ongoing warm weather in much of the country follows the driest winter and spring since the 1970s.
"Water companies have detailed plans in place to manage water resources for customers and the environment, and are doing everything they can, including working closely with government and regulators, to minimise the need for any restrictions and ensure rivers continue to flow.
"As we continue to see extremely high demand, we are urging everyone to carefully consider the amount they are using given the unprecedented conditions."
How could farming and consumers be affected?
The impact of the dry conditions will be felt most immediately by the region's farmers, but the knock-on effects will also register with consumers.
If drought measures are imposed, farmers could face restrictions on watering crops at a critical time, with root vegetables such as potatoes under particular threat. Crops could fail through lack of water, and dry soil can make harvesting difficult. If yields fall, costs are likely to rise.
Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers' Union, said: "We don't have time to waste. The situation with water is very, very serious for growers – there are implications for costs and crop viability."
Charles Hesketh, the NFU's regional policy manager covering East Anglia, said the exceptionally hot weather had already caused many crops to ripen ahead of schedule, bringing positives and negatives.
"People are able to get on, they're able to get it [crops] lifted out of the field and into the shed," he said.
"That's a good thing, it's better than it being continuously wet, with the crops suffering as a result of that, and the harvest being pushed back later and later into the year.
"There have been some negatives of course. There's been some stress to the crops, which has meant that they haven't yielded as well as might have [been] hoped."
This included crops like rapeseed, which require a moisture content of 6pc and dropped below that proportion during the record-breaking temperatures last week.
He added that potatoes had suffered bruising and skin damage because of how hard soils had become – with supermarkets rejecting some potatoes for quality reasons, and those that are accepted having a shorter shelf-life.
While he acknowledged that farmers were struggling this summer, he said he was mainly concerned about next year.
"If we don't get much winter rainfall, what we call 'recharge' over the winter, then abstraction next year will be a bigger challenge, because there'll be less water available.
"If it's another long, dry summer [next year], that will compound things."