Homes in the south of England could face the country’s first hosepipe ban since 2012 due to falling river water levels in Hampshire.
Southern Water, which supplies 2.3 million customers, applied to the Environment Agency for a drought permit amid soaring temperatures across the UK this week.
It said water levels in local rivers were low and likely to fall further after a dry winter and an even drier spring.
Rainfall across the south and south-east was only three-quarters of the average recorded for winter. In May, there was less than 40% of average rainfall in Hampshire, Southern Water said.
If the permit is granted, a temporary use ban may be introduced for parts of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, one year after north-west England narrowly avoided a hosepipe ban after the longest heatwave since 1976.
Privately owned Southern Water has applied for the permit because it hopes to be given permission to drain more than usual from the River Test in Hampshire, even though water levels are dwindling.
If its request is successful, Southern Water would be obliged to ban the use of hosepipes to water lawns, or pressure washers to clean cars or patios, to avoid extra stress on the river’s ecosystem. The Environment Agency said it will decide whether to grant the permit by the end of August.
Southern Water said if the permit was granted the bans would be carried out “in a phased way, in specific areas which depend on the River Test for water”. It added that it would provide full details in advance. A spokesman for the supplier declined to comment on how many homes would be affected.
Karen Gibbs, from the Consumer Council for Water, said: “It’s important to stress that people in the affected area would only be asked not to use hosepipes and sprinklers, which can use huge amounts of water.
“In the meantime we’d encourage customers to keep using water wisely and for Southern to do everything in its power to reduce the amount of water lost through leaking pipes – it should be leading by example.”
The supplier is already importing water from neighbouring areas and deploying extra teams and technology to fix leaks in its pipe network due to low levels. Southern Water said: “We know it would be inconvenient and disruptive having to impose such measures but protecting the environment is a task for all of us.”
The water shortage is the latest blow to the company, which is facing prosecution over “shocking” failures at its sewage treatment sites that polluted rivers and beaches in southern England. The legal challenge, led by the Environment Agency, comes after the industry regulator imposed a record £126m penalty against the supplier.
Ofwat told Southern Water on Friday that it must communicate clearly with its customers about what is required if a hosepipe ban was introduced.
The spokesman said: “We all have a part to play to protect and preserve water and this means that companies must also step up to this challenge. This means doing all that they can to reduce leakage and work hard to achieve this including with more innovation and collaboration.”
Water companies are under pressure to improve their networks of pipe network and reservoirs to lessen the impact of growing populations and the climate crisis on supplies.
In its latest industry report, Water UK found that 15 out of 18 water companies met the industry’s targets for reducing leakage this year but said more needed to be done.
Water UK’s chief executive, Michael Roberts, said: “The overall picture on leakage has improved compared with last year. We are still determined to do better as an industry, and it remains one of our highest priorities.”
Thames Water, the UK’s largest water company, was forced to pay £120m in customer compensation for its poor leakage record last year. It also failed to meet Water UK’s targets.
A Thames Water spokesman said: “Tackling leakage is a top priority for us, and we’re spending more than £1m every day fixing an average of 1,400 leaks each week. Last month, leakage in our region hit its lowest level in three years.”
Affinity Water and Hafren Water also fell short of the targets, according to Water UK.