The Environment Agency had warned that farmers and growers could be hit after Southern Water was given a drought permit to refill Bewl Water reservoir in Kent.

The permit runs until the end of March and allows Southern Water to continue pumping water from the River Medway system into Bewl when the river has lower flows than the company’s usual permit to take water would allow. This could have a knock on effect on farmers and growers taking water from the same system.

But Bewl Water reservoir has staged what Southern Water described as “an astonishing recovery” thanks to weeks of winter rain. From a low of just under 33% full at the start of December, the level hit 75% on 12 February.

As South East Farmer went to press, Southern Water had not had to use the permit but a long period of relatively dry, very cold weather was forecast. The permit was granted by the EA after the dry winter of 2016 was compounded by the exceptionally dry autumn in 2017. In October and November the South East received less half of the usual amount of rain.

“I would say there is a lingering concern but the rain has changed things substantially,” said Jamie Hannaford, principal hydrologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in Oxfordshire. CEH publishes a monthly hydrological summary for the UK with the British Geological Survey. The summary for January said that soil moisture deficits were eliminated in the South East and the seasonal recovery of groundwater levels was well established with few exceptions. Levels were generally in the normal range, although below normal levels persist in parts of the chalk.

In South East, southern and eastern England groundwater comes from the chalk aquifer which contributes a large part of the drinking water supply as well as allowing abstractions by farmers and growers in many places.

“There is still a need for vigilance because it has been dry for such a long time,” said Mr Hannaford, who pointed out that groundwater levels are still low in parts of the South East – such as the North Downs in Kent and the Chilterns – as well as parts of East Anglia. Rainfall for January was 112% of the average for England. “It was not especially wet, but enough to have made a difference,” Mr Hannaford added.

The EA said October 2016 – April 2017 was the second driest October to April period on record in parts of Kent and East and West Sussex. The driest October to April period on record for those areas was 1976. October 2017 was the driest since 1978 for nearly 20 hydrological areas across east and South East England.

“Even though it has been wetter in the South East at the start of 2018 above average rainfall is still needed over the next two months,” said the EA. “Rainfall in February and March will be key for refilling groundwater supplies.”