Drought: Britain Could See Standpipes After Third Dry Winter

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has raised the possibility of standpipes returning to UK streets if the country is hit by a third dry winter in a row.

Mrs Spelman told the BBC's Inside Out programme that while it was "most unlikely" that drought-affected areas would need to use standpipes this year, another dry winter could make it more likely they would have to be brought in.

And while the wettest April on record had been good for the drought situation, she said the heavy rain had not solved the problem - and a wet winter was needed to get things back to normal.

South east, south west and eastern England are in drought along with the Midlands and South and East Yorkshire after two extremely dry winters.

Many areas rely on groundwater for much of their tap water supplies, and the dry winters mean aquifers have not had a chance to recharge when they normally would.

Water companies who rely on groundwater for supplies are concerned about what will happen if there is a third dry winter.

Mrs Spelman told Inside Out: "I'm not deluded into thinking that I can tell you how much rain we are going to get - and it's far too early to tell yet whether we are going to have the wet winter we do need; but whereas it's most unlikely we would have standpipes this year, if we have another dry winter that becomes more likely."

She added: "We really do need a wet winter to get back to normal conditions."

Despite April's record wet weather beginning to restore depleted water levels below ground, the Environment Agency (EA) said it would take much more time and rain to undo the effects of the two dry winters.

Thames Water warned its 8.8 million customers a hosepipe ban would remain in place despite heavy downpours bringing more than double the long-term average rain for the month.

The UK's biggest water company said the rain had not made up for a shortfall caused by below-average rainfall in 20 of the previous 25 months.

Richard Aylard, director of sustainability and external affairs for Thames Water, said: "It took the two driest years since records began for us to get into this drought, and one wet month, even one as wet as April, will not be enough to get us out of it."

Prolonged and heavy downpours caused major flooding across areas in the south of Britain over the past week, with 100 properties in England and Wales becoming partly submerged since Friday, according to the EA.

A number of transport routes were also affected while a respected Mental Health Tribunal judge was killed when a car was swept away by 5ft of fast-flowing water as it drove across a ford.

Jonathan Gammon, 52, from Kingston Lane, Teddington, Middlesex, was trapped in his Toyota Yaris after attempting to cross the ford at Thornford Road, Headley, Hampshire, on Monday.

Despite flood waters beginning to recede overnight, the EA said it was continuing to keep a "close watch" on river levels.

The agency has cut its number of flood warnings to 24, while 102 less severe flood alerts are in place.

However, MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, warned further downpours were expected to return tonight and over the coming days.

Forecaster Matt Dobson said: "There is another band of heavy rain that is going to hit southern parts of the UK later tonight and last throughout tomorrow and into Friday morning.

"It will cover south Wales and the majority of the south of England with around 10mm to 20mm (0.4in to 0.8in) of rain falling in most places and up to an inch of rain in the worst effected regions.

"If this band of rain was coming on its own then it wouldn't be a noteworthy event but after what has happened in the last week it could keep the river levels quite high and lead to further flooding."

The weekend is set to be drier but colder, with frost on Saturday night a possibility in rural parts of northern England and Scotland, Meteogroup said.

Temperatures were forecast to plunge as low as -1C in these areas - some eight degrees below the current average night time temperature.

"It's not unheard of to have these temperatures as this time of year but it's certainly colder than average," senior forecaster Paul Mott said.

Mrs Spelman told Inside Out the Government was taking steps to ensure water supplies, including encouraging companies to work together to transport water more efficiently from wet to dry areas.

And she raised the issue of how the UK uses water - including using drinking water for things such as flushing toilets and washing clothes.

:: Drought 2012 - an Inside Out Special airs tonight on BBC1 at 7.30pm.

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