A further 17 counties are declared official drought zones, as the Environment Agency warns that water shortages could last until Christmas and beyond.

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Weeks after imposing a hosepipe ban across millions of households in southern and eastern England, the warning of water shortages has been extended to over half of Britain.

The Environment Agency said that dry weather over the last few months has left some English rivers at dangerously low levels and pushed the Midlands and the south west of the country into drought.

Public water supplies are unlikely to be affected, but Environment Agency officials repeated calls for consumers to use scarce water supplies wisely. Drought zones had already been declared in London, the south east, East Anglia and parts of Yorkshire.

Trevor Bishop, head of water resources at the Environment Agency, warned that the prospect of a longer term drought last until Christmas "and perhaps beyond" is now likely.

"While we've had some welcome rain recently, the problem has not gone away, and we would urge everyone - right across the country - to use water wisely now, which will help to prevent more serious impacts next year," he said.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said that the lack of rain is taking its toll on the environment and on farmers, creating problems for wildlife, wetlands and crop production. "The Environment Agency is urging businesses, water companies and consumers to all play their part by using water wisely, to help conserve precious water supplies," he added.

The new official drought zones are Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Bristol, South Gloucestershire, parts of Hampshire, and most of Wiltshire.

Fears for the environment

In the Midlands the Environment Agency has rescued fish from the River Lathkill in Derbyshire after it dried up, and the Rivers Tern, Sow, Soar and Leadon reached their lowest ever recorded levels in March.

Rivers in the south west are also suffering, and nationally important chalk streams, such as the Hampshire Avon and the Dorset Stour, which support rare trout and salmon species, are described as exceptionally low.

Although the rain expected over the spring and summer will help to water crops and gardens, experts say it is unlikely to improve the overall drought situation.

The months between October and March, known as the winter recharge period, are usually a time of prolonged rainfall which helps to prevent drought. But parts of England received less than 60 per cent of the average winter rainfall during this period, and water supplies have not been replenished.

'Responsibility' to save water

The Environment Agency is working with the water industry to put plans in place now to deal with the prospect of a third dry winter if rain continues to stay away.

Last week, the agency called on businesses to join householders in saving water, and is continuing to press water companies to show that they have stepped up their publicity campaigns to encourage people and businesses to conserve supplies.

Officials are also stepping up river monitoring and working to help farmers top up their storage reservoirs.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: "As more areas of the UK move into drought it is vital that we use less water to protect the public's water supply in the driest areas of the country.

"It is for everyone to share the responsibility to save water. We are asking everyone to help by using less water and starting now."