Drought in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly - Information Page

Closed 16 May 2023

Opened 4 Apr 2023


Water is a precious resource that we can’t live without; from supplying drinking water and supporting fisheries, to providing an essential resource to business and agriculture, as well as a source of recreation.

It is important that our rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal areas, wetlands and groundwater are managed properly to ensure the needs of society, the economy and wildlife can be met and maintained over the long-term.

LATEST UPDATE: 17 April 2023 

Lyd Drought Permit: public hearing cancelled
The Environment Agency received an objection to the River Lyd Drought Permit application. This objection has now been withdrawn, so the public hearing planned for 18 April 2023 has now been cancelled.

Environment Agency Role

We have a crucial role as a regulator, in responding to periods of prolonged dry weather & drought. We will monitor conditions, protect sensitive habitats, and work with South West Water (SWW) and other abstractors to safeguard supplies.

We work with water abstractors to balance the needs of the public, industry and farmers, and the environment, to ensure long-term water resilience.

We will ensure water users and the environment get the water they need and:

  • Ensure we are responding quickly to emergencies.
  • Work with South West Water to help them follow their drought plan so that they implement all agreed actions in a timely way.
  • Work proactively with farmers and other water users, who abstract water under licence from the Environment Agency, to help them to get the water they need whilst sustaining environmental needs.
  • Continue to actively monitor the weather, water situation and the environment.
  • Manage down demand and protect the environment, using our regulatory powers as necessary.
  • Communicate with those who use the environment to help identify potential impacts as quickly as possible.

What is 'Drought'

This is a naturally occurring event when rainfall levels are lower than normal for a sustained period of time resulting in low river, reservoir and groundwater levels.

Prior to 2022, our most recent experiences of drought in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly were 1976, 1995, 2012 and in 2018 when we experienced one of the hottest summers on record.

What is happening across Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Area?

Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Area has officially been in drought for eight months since drought was declared on 12 August 2022.  Despite the wet and unsettled weather throughout the winter months, we remain in drought.

Reservoir Storage

The winter rainfall has had a positive impact on SWW’s supply reservoirs total. Total Storage across all of Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly reservoirs is at 78.9%. Although storage has increased, as a comparison the overall net storage level at this time last year (2022) was at 94%.

If you would like to see more details about the reservoir levels in Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly you can find more information on South West Water's website.


After very low rain throughout the month of February, rainfall levels have improved. March 2023 rainfall for the DCIS area was 202mm (203% of the Long-Term Average), exceptionally high for the time of year. Despite this, some reservoir levels have not fully recovered as we go into Spring 2023.


As of March 2023, all groundwater levels are at ‘normal’ status, except for those in the very fast-responding Winnards Perch borehole, which is at ‘exceptionally high’ status due to recent rainfall. British Geological Survey Aquimod modelling for our Bussels No 7A indicator borehole predicts that normal levels are most likely at this borehole up until October 2023. This prediction may be extrapolated to some extent to the indicator boreholes across the rest of DCIS. In common with other faster-responding boreholes, groundwater levels in our Isles of Scilly monitoring borehole have, so far this year, risen and fallen rapidly in response to rainfall and are currently rising, due to rainfall since the start of March. 

If you would like to see more details about water resources in Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly you can find more information including our published monthly reports on Gov.uk.

What can you do to help?

Water is a precious resource, and it is always helpful, in terms of future supplies and protecting the environment, for everyone to follow advice on saving water from their water company and use water wisely.

The average person in England uses 140 litres per day. We all need to reduce the amount of water that we use, to protect our natural environment and drinking water supplies.

South West Water’s top tips for saving water, energy and money include the following:

  • Only wash full loads in your washing machine or dishwasher. 
  • Use a bucket and sponge to wash your car, rather than a hosepipe.
  • Have a four-minute shower, instead of a bath. 
  • Turn the tap off when brushing your teeth.
  • Install a water butt to collect rainwater for watering your garden.
  • Water your garden early in the morning or in the evening when it is cooler.

You can read more on their website at South West Water. More information on saving water can also be found on WaterWise websites.

We would also urge anyone seeing any environmental impacts due to dry weather, such as fish in distress, to report it to our free 24 hours Environment Agency incident line on 0800 80 70 60.

What is the Environment Agency doing?

We continue to ensure water users and the environment get the water they need by:


  • Actively monitor the weather, water situation and the environment.
  • Meet weekly with South West Water regarding their developing water resource situation.
  • Monitor the environment for impacts, respond to incidents across the area, where required and take action to protect the environment.
  • We are also increasing the number of gauge checks on priority rivers and in important locations, so that we have accurate data on river levels and flows.


  • We are talking with abstractors so they know when they can and cannot abstract according to river flow and in some cases groundwater levels.
  • We regularly complete compliance checks on abstractors to make sure they are complying with their licence conditions.


We have issued 5 Drought Permits to South West Water for the Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly area.

What is South West Water doing?

The Government requires all water companies to produce a Drought Plan, setting out their plans on how they will maintain water supplies to customers in the event of a drought. These plans are reviewed every five years, in conjunction with the Environment Agency.

South West Water’s Drought Plan can be viewed on their website.

There are a number of actions that South West Water can take to preserve water supplies, however during more severe conditions, they may need to apply for drought orders or drought permits to alter abstraction licence conditions.  At these times there would be close consultation with the Environment Agency and relevant stakeholders.

What are Drought Permits?

Water companies must apply to the Environment Agency (or Natural Resources Wales) for a drought permit.  Drought Permits allow temporary changes to some of the conditions under which water companies operate, allowing them to:

  • Reduce the amount of water released from reservoirs to support river levels downstream.
  • Take more water from rivers to use for supply, giving reservoir levels more chance to recover.

Both these actions allow water companies to increase the chances of reservoirs refilling over winter when the weather is wetter and giving a healthier start to the spring and summer in terms of water stocks.

When we assess the permit applications, we must be satisfied that a serious deficiency of supplies of water in an area exists, or it is threatened, and that the reason for the deficiency is from an exceptional shortage of rain.

We only issue a permit if we are content there are procedures in place to monitor and mitigate for any impact on the environment. We also needed evidence of South West Water’s ongoing commitment to promote water efficiency, reduce abstraction and drive down its leakage.

South West Water has applied to the Environment Agency for the following Drought Permits:


The extant permits we have issued will remain in place until the date of expiry and are being used by South West Water to secure public water supplies as we move into the spring, when the demand for water increases.

The map below shows the 8 sites the permits relate to:


Hearing Cancellations

There is a possibility that planned hearings could be cancelled at short notice. This might happen any time right up until the hearing is due to commence, as outstanding objections could be resolved or withdrawn at the last moment. Please check this website for any hearing cancellation notice.

What are Drought Orders?

Drought orders are issued by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (or by Welsh ministers in Wales). Drought Orders apply when there is serious threat to plants or animals that are dependent on that water, therefore they can be more complex compared to drought permits.

There are no Drought Orders currently for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.


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