It might feel wet this week, but experts warn some parts of England need unseasonable rain to offset an abnormally dry winter.
Rivers in parts of England and Wales hit their lowest level on record in February, according to data from the UK’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology.
England had its driest February in 30 years, according to the Met Office.
The rivers and reservoirs that supply drinking water and feed crops depend on winter rains to top up before spring.
With no “unusually heavy rains” in the coming months, south-west England and East Anglia are at risk of drought, UKCEH said.
“Wet weather and snow during the first two weeks of March led to increased river flows and soil wetting [but] some areas of England were starting March with below average groundwater levels or below average tank stocks,” UKCEH’s Steve Turner told BBC News.
A drought was declared in England and Wales last summer, leading to a ban on spraying, farmers losing their crops and killing some wild animals.
Rain in February was also scarce in Wales and Northern Ireland, with Wales seeing just 22% of its monthly average.
This had caused water levels to drop in reservoirs and groundwater, which provide drinking water to millions of people. In Wales, reservoir levels were at their lowest in February since 1996.
River flows were below average across much of the UK. The Trent in the Midlands, the Erch in north Wales and the Warleggan in Cornwall all broke their own records for lowest water levels in February.
Low-flow rivers pose a serious threat to wildlife as they concentrate pollution, reduce oxygen levels and can affect fish breeding patterns, explains Joan Edwards, policy director for The Wildlife Trusts.
“Last summer’s devastating drought should be a wake-up call to protect the most precious resource – water,” he told BBC News.
The dry climate also poses serious problems for agriculture.
In East Anglia, Andrew Blenkiron’s farm received just 2.4mm of rain, compared with the usual amount of around 50mm in February.
The river’s low levels meant it had little water to fill its reservoir. Now he’s been forced to cut plans to plant potatoes, onions, parsnips and carrots by about a fifth.
“We dare not plant a crop that requires irrigation,” he told BBC News.
His farm had just recovered from the impacts of last summer’s intense heat before this year’s dry weather.
It is building pressure in a year in which energy prices have tripled its costs. He warns that if many farmers are forced to reduce their harvests, it could affect food supplies in the autumn.
In the rest of Europe, alerts are in place for drought conditions, including in France and Spain, which could further affect supplies of tomatoes and lettuce.
Scientific analysis of droughts in Northern Europe in 2022 has suggested that climate change has made those drought conditions more likely.
Last month the chairman of the National Drought Group, John Leyland, warned that England was just a dry spell away from drought this summer.
The chances of a dry spring are higher than normal, according to the Met Office’s quarterly forecast.
Drought conditions in February highlighted “the need to remain vigilant” especially in areas that have not recovered from last year’s drought, an Environment Agency spokesman told BBC News.
“We can’t rely on the weather alone, which is why the Environment Agency, water companies and our partners are taking steps to ensure water resources are in the best possible position for both summer and future droughts.” they added.
Data visualization by Erwan Rivault