Firms in hot water over leaks as drought brings ban

Water companies have been forced to defend their performance as millions of customers were hit with hosepipe bans which look set to be in place all summer.

Seven water companies have placed restrictions on water use following one of the driest two-year periods on record, with domestic customers facing a £1,000 fine if they use their hosepipe in defiance of the ban.

Thames Water, Southern Water, South East Water, Anglian Water, Sutton and East Surrey, Veolia Central and Veolia South East have brought in the restrictions, affecting about 20 million people.

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Customers will no longer be able to use their hosepipes for watering gardens, washing cars or boats, hosing down patios and paths, and filling swimming pools, ponds, fountains and paddling pools.

Public parks in some areas will also be hit and it will also affect the fountains in Trafalgar Square, which are expected to dry up in almost a week.

The tourist spot in central London is expected to be a focal point for Olympic and Jubilee celebrations and officials are looking to identify a sustainable source for use throughout the summer.

A Greater London Authority spokesman said: “As we explore alternative options the fountains are currently being used for one hour a day at a low plume using an existing store of water that is expected to last for about a week. This is to enable the water cleansing systems to work.”

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Water firms insist the restrictions are necessary to preserve essential water supplies and protect the environment, in the face of drought which has left groundwater below 1976 levels in some places and rivers running dry.

But the Environment Agency warned hosepipe bans were “not a silver bullet”, and it was not just down to households to save water. The government agency has also urged companies to do their bit to reduce water use and called on water firms to do more to cut leaks from their networks.

Of the firms to impose hosepipe bans, Anglian and Southern have failed to meet their targets for reducing water leakage – and still paid large bonuses to bosses.

Anglian Water paid out more than £1.1m to its top executives in bonuses last year while Southern Water paid out more than £400,000.

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Water companies have blamed the recent harsh winters, which led to freezing and bursting pipes across the country, for their failure to meet targets, and insisted they were investing millions in the problem.

Thames Water, which serves 8.8m customers, met its targets over the past six years, although its leakage rates account for around a quarter of the 2.6 billion litres it supplies a day to customers.

It paid its executive directors almost £2m in bonuses in the last financial year, but also spent more than £1bn on infrastructure and London’s ageing sewers.

Richard Aylard, external affairs and sustainability director, denied the company could have done more to improve water supplies since 2006, and said the current predicament was “entirely to do with the weather”, with the Thames region suffering the driest two-year period in records stretching back 125 years.

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The Environment Agency warned groundwater levels were continuing to fall and were lower than at the same time in 1976 in parts of Shropshire, the Chilterns and the North Downs.

England and Wales had just 38% of the long term average rainfall for March and in parts of the Midlands, the South West and Wales some rivers are very low for the time of year.

In recent weeks, parts of Yorkshire have slipped into drought, while parts of the Midlands and South West are at risk.