U.S. Water News Online
WITHAM FRIARY, England -- Patches of dry grass dot the
otherwise idyllic countryside around this village of stone cottages
and wildflowers -- hardly the calamitous picture meteorologists paint
when warning of Britain's worst drought in 30 years.
But the warning has hit home for the Duke of Somerset.
As groundwater levels sink, he plans to end a 19th-century
tradition of allowing villagers to use water from his spring-fed
reservoir -- a move that will force 130 families to connect to a
water main or another nearby spring.
"Over the past few years, we've watched as it's become drier and
drier. The situation has just come to a head now," John Seymour, the
Duke of Somerset, told The Associated Press.
Some villagers have sympathy for the duke. Others say his move
harkens back to an age when nobles ruled the land.
"The situation feels terribly feudal," said David Heath, a Liberal
Democrat lawmaker who lives in the village and has raised the issue
in Parliament. "If it were hundreds of years ago, we would have been
Britain has seen record low rainfalls the past two winters,
depleting groundwater supplies in a nation already grappling with a
dilapidated water infrastructure prone to leaks, much of which was
built during Victorian times.
Witham Friary is a case in point. It consisted of a Carthusian
monastery when it was founded in the 12th century. It had grown to
only a few houses and pubs when the duke's ancestors started
supplying water in the 19th century.
Since then, it has grown to a village of modern houses and holiday
cottages housing about 130 families. In the last few years alone,
more than two dozen buildings have gone up, and while there are fewer
dairy farms, herd size has increased and demand for water has risen.
Many villagers are angry the money they paid the duke for water
each year -- about $370 to $560 per customer -- wasn't invested in
connecting to a water main or another spring.
The duke's family used to own the village and the surrounding
property but sold off the land in the 1950s. While the estate
continued to provide water from a spring in the pine-lined woods,
poor rainfall and increased demand led to poor water quality and low
Villagers were recently served with notices from the duke's
estate, saying the water supply would be terminated.
The clerk to Witham Friary's parish council, Deborah Liggatt, says
a solution must be found. She doesn't blame the duke, and says
dealing with one of the country's big water companies would be no
"People forget that when the system went into place they were
lucky if they had one tap," Liggatt said. "Now, they have dishwashers
and washing machines. We're all guilty."
With searing summer temperatures -- the hottest recorded in
Britain in July -- levels at the duke's reservoir have continued to
drop while villagers have taken drastic water-saving measures.
"Now, we turn off the taps when we brush our teeth. We put water
in bowls to wash vegetables and then reuse it," said Elizabeth
Kefford, 66, a longtime resident of Witham Friary.
A solution seems to be in sight for Witham Friary, with the duke
and villagers meeting regularly to look at options and how costs can
be shared. Britain's water shortage and future supplies remain
Britain saw its wettest May in nearly 30 years but much of the
water was absorbed by the ground or evaporated in the heat. As a
result, aquifers aren't being replenished and forecasters from the
Meteorological Office say that by 2050 Britain will have a rainfall
deficit of 10 percent to 15 percent.
At particular risk is southeast England, where 70 percent of the
region's water comes from groundwater supplies, said Environment
Minister Ian Pearson. Parts of the country receive less annual
rainfall than sections of the Middle East.
Some 13 million people in southeast England already are subject to
watering bans. The order extends to parts of London. Even Prime
Minister Tony Blair's office has employed water-saving measures,
including special machines to water the grass at No. 10 Downing St.
In Witham Friary, a solution will likely be reached by the end of
the year by connecting either to a nearby spring or water main.
"I think that water will be as valuable as oil eventually," the
duke said. "But for now, we have to do what we can to plan ahead and
conserve for the future."
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