It’s been so cold over the past few weeks that it may seem strange to talk about how dry it’s been.
But it has been dry. Very dry indeed. So dry that we might be facing an official water shortage.
While it’s too early to talk about hosepipe bans and sharing a bath, it’s not too soon to work out whether there are steps that we can all take to lessen the problem.
Even when we have a normal amount of rain, the Environment Agency said, our dense population level means that we have less water per person than some Mediterranean countries where there is much less rainfall.
There are no reservoirs supplying Brighton and Hove. We rely solely on groundwater. But even the reservoirs north of the Downs are looking empty. And they give us a clue about the depth of the problem that we face unless the heavens open soon.
Southern Water said that we have just had the driest 12 months since 1976 when there was a long hot summer and, in Brighton and Hove, ladybirds crunching underfoot.
Despite downpours in December, last month proved much drier with just half the amount of rain falling compared with a typical January. And February so far has been no better.
The company’s water quality and strategy manager Meyrick Gough said: “Our reservoirs have not refilled as we would have hoped so far this winter.
“The December rain helped but we now need similar amounts over February, March and April so our resources can recover in time for summer. This rain is particularly important as January was so dry.”
In the world of water, we live and work in the “Sussex Brighton supply area”. It extends along the coast from the River Adur in the west to Peacehaven in the east and includes the city of Brighton and Hove and the surrounding area.
The Brighton supply area serves a population of 320,000 is supplied entirely from 13 chalk groundwater sources.
If necessary, it is possible to transfer water to the Brighton area from the Worthing area.
The 13 groundwater sources in the Brighton area are capable of supplying more than 108 million litres a day.
In a normal year average demand is likely to be about 83 million litres a day. This can rise to 103 million litres a day on a hot summer day.
Mr Gough said: “Demand goes up in hot, dry weather because people typically use more water on their lawns and gardens and other seasonal uses like paddling pools.”
A dry document
Southern Water’s draft drought plan outlines how the company would ensure that it could continue to supply customers with safe, healthy drinking water under extreme, dry conditions.
The company said: “It also balances the needs of the environment against the need to supply drinking water.”
The plan includes the introduction of new water restrictions and a timetable for their use as a drought develops.
The last time that similar measures were invoked was from 2004 to 2007.
The South East is classed as an “area of serious water stress” and Southern Water said that population growth and climate change were likely to mean hotter and drier summers and more frequent droughts.
It said: “We are taking action to secure healthy water supplies for future generations, including our water metering programme, building new resources and tackling leakage.” But it urged customers to play their part by using water more wisely.
Southern and the other water companies were given more power to order temporary restrictions by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.
The recent changes in the law ushered in by the Act are reflected in Southern’s draft drought plan. It sets out “drought triggers” which are based on rain, soil moisture, groundwater levels, river flows and reservoir levels.
When the triggers are reached, the plan sets out how Southern would introduce drought actions to make the best use of water resources.
It said: “These include media campaigns, temporary bans, leakage control and sharing resources with other water companies.
“Temporary bans could include restrictions on using hosepipes and sprinklers to wash cars, watering gardens and allotments, filling swimming pools and washing patios.
“In severe droughts, we can also apply for drought permits and orders to take more water from rivers and underground aquifers and further limit what we use water for.
“The draft drought plan looks at all these options, when they should be introduced and for how long.”
A salty solution?
Given how often and how much it rains in Scotland, Wales and parts of Northern England, some people have suggested building a national water mains network.
Others have said that we should build desalination plants to convert sea water into tap water.
Southern and the other water companies have said that both options are too expensive to be realistic.
Water is so heavy and requires so much pumping equipment, industry experts said, that it was better to stick to local solutions.
One of the changes being noticed by a growing number of people is universal metering, or compulsory metering to its critics.
More than nine in ten homes in Brighton and Hove are due to be metered by 2015. The main exceptions will be blocks of flats with a shared stopcock.
Experts say that metering encourages people to waste less water. Critics say that it penalises families.
The public can find a copy of the Draft Drought Plan on Southern Water’s website.
The company is consulting customers and others until Friday 30 March. It said that it would review the feedback and comments and publish a response on Friday 18 May.
In the meantime we can pray for rain and practise using water wisely.
Planning for future water shortages
Since the last drought, from 2004 to 2007, Southern Water has been planning and preparing for future water shortages. This work has included:
- Tackling leaks – Southern Water spent £20 million in both 2010-11 and 2011-12 replacing about 85 miles of mains to reduce the risk of burst pipes and leaks. A further 160 miles of mains is due to be replaced by 2015.
- Fitting meters – More than 100,000 water meters are being installed as part of the universal metering programme. They come with leak alarms. Work is due to start in the Brighton area next year. The programme is expected to save five million litres of water a day. For more information visit www.yourwatermeter.co.uk.
- Storing more – A £10 million reservoir called Church Farm Reservoir was completed last year at Hardham, near Pulborough. It should be able to supply water to 70,000 people during a drought.
- Pumping further – A new transfer pumping station will allow water to be moved from the Church Farm Reservoir near Pulborough to Hove if needed.
Top tips to save water
Flush with success – Flushing the toilet accounts for about 30 per cent of all the water we use in our homes. Use a flush saver bag to save one litre of water every time. Flush saver bags are free to Southern Water customers.
Brush with less – Most people clean their teeth twice a day, often with the tap running. Instead use a mug of water to rinse your mouth out. A family of four can save a bathful of water a day by doing this.
Take a shower – A bath uses about 80 litres of water. A shower uses 30 litres on average.
A load off your mind – Start the washing machine or dishwasher only once you have a full load. Miss just one wash a week and you’ll save more than 5,000 litres a year.
Boil efficiently – Many of us fill the kettle to maximum. If you use only as much water as you need for a cuppa, making sure the element is covered, you will save power as well as water.
Chill – Keep a jug of water in the fridge rather than run the tap until the water flows cold.
Soak your veg – Wash vegetables in a bowl, not under a running tap. Soaking vegetables makes them easier to peel. A running tap wastes nine litres a minute.
Start with a butt – Use a butt to collect rainwater. It’s better for garden plants than tap water. When it’s hot and dry, garden watering accounts for up to 70 per cent of all household water use.
Pick water-efficient plants – Many beautiful and interesting plants can be grown in water-efficient gardens and usually need less maintenance.
Sponge a car – Use a bucket and sponge to wash the car rather than a water-wasting hose.
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