The first hosepipe ban to be imposed in England for a decade is now in force, affecting millions of people in the south of the country ahead of another predicted heatwave.
As of 5pm on Friday, residents in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight are subject to a so-called “temporary use ban” (TUB), which could see them face fines of up to £1,000 for watering their garden, cleaning a vehicle, or washing windows.
Months of sparse rainfall, combined with record-breaking temperatures in July, have left rivers at exceptionally low levels, depleted reservoirs and dried-out soils.
In Gloucestershire, the source of the River Thames has moved to five miles downstream – something the Rivers Trust described as “unprecedented”, and “sadly emblematic” of the climate emergency.
Southern Water said it has had to apply to the Environment Agency for a drought permit in order to continue taking water from the River Test, which supplies fresh water to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
It is now asking its customers in the affected areas to limit their water use “to reduce the risk of further restrictions and disruption” and “to protect our local rivers”, with the hosepipe ban set to remain in force “until we have had enough rain and the river flows are back to a normal level”.
The same measure will follow in exactly a week for South East Water customers in Kent and Sussex.
But critics point to the fact that Southern Water’s latest annual report showed it wasted nearly 21 million gallons of water a day due to leaks, only a slight reduction on the previous year.
“What you’re actually looking at is nothing to do with droughts, it’s decades of under-investment, mismanagement and – very much like the sewage scandal – a regulatory system that has completely failed the consumer and bill-payers,” campaigner Feargal Sharkey told BBC Breakfast on Friday.
“This tale that Southern Water tell about protecting the River Test, bear in mind that this is a company that two weeks ago applied to reduce the minimum level of flow required in the River Test to save the ecology of that river, to protect the environment and yet they applied to reduce that threshold.”
Southern Water’s chief customer officer Katy Taylor told the same programme: “We know that we’ve had the driest July in the southeast since 1891, the temperatures have been really high, people have been using more water.
“We just want to protect those precious, precious chalk streams and make sure they don’t run too low. So that’s why we’re asking customers if they can just reduce their water usage, especially their water usage outside – so things like cleaning your car, watering your garden, watering your windows.
“Just try to reduce that activity that’s not essential so that we can both protect our environment, at the same time as allowing people to still go about their normal activities – you know, use the taps in the kitchen, have showers.”
The Met Office has warned there is “very little meaningful rain” on the horizon for parched areas of England as temperatures are set to climb into the 30s next week.
While this could mean another heatwave – when there are above-average temperatures for three days or more – it is likely conditions will be well below the 40C seen in some places last month.
Nature campaigners have criticised water companies for leaving it to “the last possible moment” to bring in restrictions, when rivers are in a “desperate” state, and for last-minute announcements that spur an increase in water demand before hosepipe bans come in.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of The Rivers Trust, said: “Every year we get to this perilous position and at the last possible moment, when the rivers are at their lowest, we get discussion of temporary use bans.
“Announcing it at the last minute causes people to rush to wash their cars and fill their paddling pools, wash the dog, and causes an increase in demand before the ban comes in. This should happen before the rivers come to a desperate condition and there’s not enough water for wildlife.”
The Rivers Trust is calling for accelerated metering, rapid reduction in leakage, support for households to reduce water usage, such as installing low flow toilets and water butts, and sustainable drainage including rain gardens, wetlands and permeable paving to build up local stores of water underground.