Millions of households across the south of England could be hit with hosepipe bans within days after the Environment Secretary urged more water companies to introduce urgent restrictions.
In the first public intervention by ministers over the possible drought, George Eustice said it was “right” that some firms had already taken action.
“I strongly urge other water companies to take responsible action to protect and preserve our water supplies during this exceptionally dry period,” he added.
His remarks, in an article for The Telegraph, come as some ministers and senior officials fear firms are being too slow to react to the driest spell since 1976. Environmental groups have already criticised water companies for failing to act quickly.
A hosepipe ban is already in force in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, supplied by Southern Water.
South East Water will enforce a ban from next Friday, while Welsh Water will introduce one for Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire from Aug 19.
Now millions more households could be banned from using hosepipes to water their garden, wash their car or fill pools – with those who break the rules facing a £1,000 fine.
Decisions on hosepipe bans are taken by individual water firms, each of which have formal “drought plans” setting out their action in the event of shortages.
A Whitehall source said Mr Eustice wanted firms to implement their drought plans and “take whatever action necessary”, adding: “One key element of that will be the temporary use of hosepipe bans.”
Thames Water has indicated that it could implement a ban, partly depending on the extent to which households reduce their use of water to avoid shortages. Anglian Water has said its reservoirs are 80 per cent full but it is “watching river levels very closely” with more dry weather forecast.
Mr Eustice said households could also help by checking appliances for leaks and installing water-saving devices in toilet cisterns, but added: “This should never solely be about individual consumer action.”
He urged companies to do more to reduce leaks and said the Government would finalise plans to make it easier to gain planning permission for new reservoirs by the end of this year.
He added: “Water companies have a duty to ensure adequate supply, and they have assured me that essential water supplies are safe.
“In accordance with their drought plans, water companies across the country have rightly taken action to mitigate the effects of this prolonged dry weather as pressure has increased on water resources and environment.”
The south and east of England have had very dry weather without the relief brought by recent heavy rain in the north-west, and no rain is forecast in the south for at least the next week.
Last winter and spring were both unusually dry, and water use spiked to record levels last month in temperatures of more than 40C.
Christine Colvin, of the Rivers Trust, said: “We did feel that these bans were coming in quite late. Given that we were experiencing an incredibly dry July off the back of a low-rainfall year, I think a lot of these emergency measures should have been announced in mid-July and implemented into the latter half of July rather than leaving it into mid-August.
“That’s a whole month’s worth of use at the hottest time of year when we could have actually been saving on the supply side.”
The Environment Agency has warned much of England is heading for drought if dry weather continues. Very warm weather is forecast again for southern England next week, with temperatures in the mid-30s expected.
July was the driest on record for the south east of England and East Anglia, with just 10 per cent of the average rain falling in the South East.
In Cornwall, 40 firefighters tackled a grass fire near Truro on Saturday, while in Norfolk the River Wensum stopped flowing through a historic watermill for the first time in a century.
On Friday, Scotland moved to a “red alert” for drought, prompting the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to implement its first ever water bans, restricting use for industrial users including distilleries and golf courses.
Addressing the need for action from water firms to plug leaks, Mr Eustice said: “The onus must be on companies to do more to reduce leakage, building on progress made in recent years.
“We expect water companies to step up, to adapt, innovate better in their approaches to reducing demand, and better support customers with measures to reduce water consumption. If we don’t see the changes we and the public rightly expect, I won’t hesitate to step in and take further action.”