Millions of households across the south of England could be hit with hose bans within days after the Environment Secretary urged several 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 encourage other water companies to take responsible action to protect and preserve our water supplies during this exceptionally dry period,” he added.
His comments, in an article for The Telegraph, come as some ministers and senior officials fear firms are too slow to respond to the driest spell since 1976. Environmental groups have already criticized water companies for not acting quickly.
A snake ban is already in force in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, delivered by Southern Water.
South East Water will enforce a ban from next Friday, while Welsh Water will introduce one for Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire from August 19.
Now millions of households could be banned from using hoses to water their gardens, wash their cars or fill pools – while those who break the rules face a £1,000 fine.
Hose ban decisions are made by individual water companies, each of which has formal “drought plans” detailing their actions in the event of a shortage.
A Whitehall source said Eustice wanted firms to implement their drying plans and “take the necessary measures” and added: “A key element of that will be the temporary use of hose bans.”
Thames Water has indicated it may implement a ban, depending in part on the extent to which households reduce water use to avoid shortages. Anglian Water has said its reservoirs are 80 per cent full but are “monitoring river levels very closely” with more dry weather forecast.
Eustice said households can also help by checking appliances for leaks and installing water-saving devices in toilet cisterns, but added: “This should never be just about individual consumer actions.”
He urged the companies to do more to reduce leaks and said the government would finalize plans to make it easier to get 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 measures to mitigate the effects of this prolonged dry weather as pressure has increased on water resources and the environment.”
Southern and eastern England have had very dry weather without the relief brought by recent heavy rain in the northwest, 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 increased to record levels last month in temperatures of over 40C.
Christine Colvin, from the Rivers Trust, said: “We felt these bans came quite late. Given that we experienced an incredibly dry July on the back of a year of low rainfall, I believe many of these emergency measures should have been announced in mid-July and implemented in the latter half of July instead of leaving it until mid-July.August.
“That’s a whole month’s use at the hottest time of the year when we could actually have saved on the supply side.”
The Environment Agency has warned that large parts of England are headed for drought if the dry weather continues. Very hot weather is forecast again for southern England next week, with temperatures in the mid-30s.
July was the driest on record for the south east of England and East Anglia, with just 10 per cent of average rain falling in the south east.
In Cornwall, 40 firefighters tackled a grass fire near Truro on Saturday, while the River Wensum in Norfolk stopped flowing through a historic watermill for the first time in a century.
On Friday, Scotland moved into a “red alert” for drought, prompting the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to implement its first ever water bans, restricting use by industrial users including distilleries and golf courses.
Addressing the need for action by water companies to plug leaks, Mr Eustice said: “Companies need to do more to reduce leaks, building on progress made in recent years.
“We expect water companies to step up, adapt, innovate better in their approaches to reducing demand, and better support customers with measures to reduce water consumption. If we do not see the changes that we and the public rightly expect, I will not hesitate to step in and take further action.”