LONDON (Reuters) - Large parts of Britain are facing a drought this year after groundwater reached levels not seen for more than 35 years, which could spell restrictions for farmers and households.
Rivers, canals and reservoirs are running low after a second dry winter in a row, with some areas receiving less than 70 percent of normal amounts.
Ministers are meeting on Monday with water companies, the environment agency, weather forecasters and agricultural bodies to see what can be done to mitigate its impact and prevent future droughts.
"Unfortunately ... there is a high risk that parts of the country will almost certainly be in drought next summer," Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said on her department's website.
While Scotland has seen its heaviest rainfall since records began 100 years ago and Wales and northwest England have been relatively wet, other parts of England have had their driest 12 months on record, with central and eastern England particularly affected.
Central England has seen about 70 percent of its average rainfall, or less.
Two water companies, Anglian Water and Southern Water, have been forced to apply for drought permits, allowing them to take water from new sources.
South East Water has applied for a drought order, which goes further and restricts the non-essential use of water. About 65,000 properties are at risk of standpipes or rota cuts to supply.
Unless England sees more rainfall, many more households face rationing, such as hosepipe bans, though authorities are not yet talking about people having to queue for water, as they did in many parts of Britain during a heatwave in 1976.
There is also a concern that food prices may rise if Britain's wheat production is damaged, as well as other foodstuffs.
"While last year it was principally the farmers that were affected by the dry winter ... I think it is more likely that the public water supply will be affected unless we have substantial rainfall between now and the summer," Spelman told BBC radio.
She said a hosepipe ban had only been prevented last year because the water industry had invested in reducing leakages by 36 percent since the mid-1990s.
The dry weather has led to a higher-than-average number of environmental incidents such as fish being rescued, algal blooms, reduced cereal and potato yields, wildfires, and navigation restrictions.
Meanwhile, Britain has had unusually good soft fruit crops.
Monday's meeting will discuss how water companies can better detect leaks, how farmers can share water resources and how livestock farmers can plan ahead for fodder and bedding supplies.
Transporting water to affected areas will not be on the agenda as it is expensive to carry over large distances, Spelman said.
The environment department is also working with agricultural and food sectors to improve irrigation technology, and develop more water efficient crops and markets for drought affected produce.
(Reporting by Avril Ormsby, editing by William Hardy)