Time is running out to take action on water supplies in the face of shortages, conservationists warned as the government unveiled its draft Water Bill.
The draft Bill will reform the water market, allowing businesses and the public sector to switch suppliers and potentially opening up new water sources, and improve watchdog Ofwat's ability to regulate water companies, the government said.
And it will streamline the regime for abstracting water from rivers and aquifers, giving more protection to the environment, officials said.
But promised wholesale reform of the sector is not expected until the 2020s, and wildlife experts warn today's package is missing important measures such as bringing in water meters for households.
Green MP Caroline Lucas said: "As we face the worst drought in a quarter of a century, the Government's long overdue proposals to reform the water industry are certainly welcome - but are full of holes.
"Consumers are being warned that they must do all they can to save water, yet Ministers are failing to extend the same level of obligation to the water companies over their scandalous leakages."
Rose Timlett, wildlife charity WWF-UK's freshwater expert, said: "With half the country in drought and aquifer levels still resoundingly low, time is running out for the government to take action on water.
"It is enormously welcome that the Bill includes powers to reform the water abstraction system - which is currently unfair, out of date and a threat to our rivers and wildlife.
"Government also needs to ensure that the Bill addresses the huge amount of water that is currently wasted, putting an end to the red tape that currently prevents water companies from installing water meters, even when it's in the best interest of customers and the environment."
Phil Burston, water policy officer at the RSPB, said: "It's disappointing we won't actually see a real draft Water Bill for some considerable time, which we consider a sad reflection on the priority Government is giving water management issues.
"In terms of drought and flood, our legislators only look on the issue when it's happening, and it goes off the boil between these events, so we stumble from one crisis to another."
He said the wildlife group wanted commitments on full water metering, legislation to ensure water is managed across whole catchment areas and wholesale reform of the water abstraction regime.
Despite the wettest April on record, swathes of England remain in a state of drought due to two unusually dry winters, prompting criticism of water companies which have brought in hosepipe bans while presiding over high leakage rates.
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said: "This out-of- touch Government has delayed its Water Bill and washed its hands of tackling vested interests on the water sector.
"The government needs to set national standards for social tariffs to help families with rising bills, set tougher targets to reduce water leaks and protect our country's water supply for the future."
Institution of Civil Engineers director general Nick Baveystock said it was disappointing the Water Bill was announced only in draft form.
"We urgently need to address the growing gap between our water supply and demand, as highlighted by the current droughts, and it cannot be done without firm action and commitment from Government.
"Every day that goes by without the implementation of changes already outlined and consulted on in the white paper last year, we get further and further away from a resolution to our current and future water problems."
But a spokesman for the Environment Department said: "The draft bill will allow every business and public sector body to switch its water and sewerage supplier to enable them to obtain more competitive prices, to improve their efficiency and tender for services that better suit their needs.
"It will also increase opportunities for new entrants to enter the market and create an environment in which water companies respond better to the needs of the customers.
"We will be publishing our proposals on social tariffs shortly."
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