What does drought status mean? The council’s and the water company’s powers explained

Water levels at Beacons Reservoir are low during the current heatwave, August 12, 2022 in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. (Image: Carl Court/Getty Images).

Drought has been declared across much of England after the driest summer in half a century.

Rainfall levels in recent weeks have been at record lows which, combined with scorching heat, have drained the water levels of the country’s reservoirs and lakes.

Millions already live under restrictions on water use, and more may soon follow.

Here’s everything you need to know about the drought and what it means for you.

When is a drought officially declared?

We have all heard of the word drought, but in this context it also has an official meaning.

A drought can be declared by the authorities when a lack of rainfall causes them to be concerned about the environment, the water supply and the farming industry.

While there is no specific definition, officials look at criteria such as stress on natural water sources, impacts on agriculture, wildlife and natural habitats, as well as the declining levels of water stored for people to drink and use in their daily lives.

On 12 August, the Environment Agency confirmed official drought status in eight of the fourteen areas it monitors: Devon and Cornwall, Solent and South Downs, Kent and South London, Herts and North London, East Anglia, Thames, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire and the East Midlands.

Yorkshire was quickly added to the list just four days later.

While it is not unheard of to experience drought in this country, this is the first in a decade. Between 1975 and 2012, five official droughts were declared.

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Who decides if there is a drought?

A body known as the National Drought Group has been convened to take action when rainfall levels fall.

It consists of representatives of important environmental bodies such as the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England, the Farmers’ Union, the water companies and other relevant organisations.

It met earlier this summer to officially confirm that the country had moved to the yellow alert level (“prolonged dry weather”) and recently met to move the country to yellow (“drought”) status.

Parched grass on Parker's Piece in Cambridge, as drought has been declared for parts of England after the driest summer for 50 years.  Photo date: Friday 12  August 2022. PA photo.  A four-day yellow warning for extreme heat from the Met Office is in place for much of England and Wales until Sunday, with warnings of health impacts and travel disruption.  Image credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Record low levels of rainwater have turned green parts of England yellow and pressured the ecosystem (Image: PA)

What does drought mean for everyday life?

Although it may be obvious, the impact of drought on our daily lives will depend on its severity and how long it continues.

Experts say some restrictions may be necessary into the next year while water levels return to normal.

The various water companies that manage the network in different parts of the country must maintain plans for what to do in an emergency.

The most obvious measures are snake bans, which have already been introduced in some places.

Further restrictions on commercial and domestic use will be next, and firms can apply for permits to physically move water around the country to hard-hit areas where needed.

Other plans may involve increased water extraction, although this may have environmental consequences.

For example, Thames Water states in its draft 2022 drought plan: “A key feature of our drought plan is the potential to use drought permits in a severe drought.”

“A drought permit is a means by which we can obtain temporary permission from the Norwegian Environment Agency to increase extraction in certain locations during a severe drought.”

Although the plan warns that this could have an impact on sensitive streams, it would only be used “under extreme circumstances.”

Water rationing for homes is still a long way off, and the Norwegian Environment Agency has emphasized that the levels of drinking water are still at safe levels.

If things get much worse, the National Drought Group could move the country up to a red alert level, defined as the “severe drought stage”.

Before things returned to normal from here, the country would be placed back into an amber “drought recovery stage,” where water companies could still take some action.

MORE: Drought declared in parts of Wales after months of dry weather takes its toll

MORE: Some storms won’t end the snake ban — but these top tips can help your garden survive the drought

MORE: Was there a drought in 1976 after the great heat wave?

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