England's new late-night crime spree: watering gardens

The island of dreary drizzles is enduring the driest 18-month spell in 70 years, forcing Britons to ration water, forgo garden hoses, and plant cacti.

Keith Clack puts down his bucket, shifts his ladder on his shoulder, and casts a glance skyward. "We're going to get a shower now," he correctly predicts as grey drops strafe passersby. "About time too. We're going to need a whole summer of this to even things out."

The British are known for complaining about the weather - but that is usually because it is too wet. With parts of the country parched by the driest 18-month spell for 70 years, some are beginning to pray for rain. Aquifers and reservoirs are depleted; rationing is on the way. Already the government Environment Agencyis saying there is less water per head in London than in parts of the Sudan. Another dry summer, they say, and people will be forced to fill their kettles and saucepans from fire hydrants in the streets.

"I've been a window cleaner 25 years and I can't remember a time like this," says Mr. Clack. "I can only recall three times in the past six months when it rained at all. And I notice these things in my job, I can tell you."

If southeast England has been dry, Sutton's been about the driest. Last week, the local water company issued Britain's first drought order for 11 years, bringing in special powers to limit water usage in a range of outlets: automated car washes, golf courses, swimming pools.

The water restrictions are on a three-tiered system, starting with a "level one" ban on gardening hoses, then graduating up to "level three" rationing through water cut-offs between certain hours.

It's all making for some peculiar changes to consumer behavior. Gardening stores say they have sold out of rain catchment systems and watering cans (garden hose use has been banned for weeks in southeast England). Gardeners like Joan Spooner, who was buying plants recently with husband Reginald, are looking for more hardy perennials rather than the usual staples of an English country garden.

"It's been the driest 18-month period since 1932-34," says Wayne Elliott, meteorology spokesman for the Met Office, the national weather forecaster. People of that generation had more experience with privation, he notes. "Society's changed a lot since then. Expectations are much higher. Nowadays, people expect water to come out of the tap when they turn it on."

Of course, no one had heard of climate change in 1932. But Mr. Elliott warns against jumping to conclusions this time around. "Climate change points to winters getting wetter across the UK, so this goes against the science," he says.

Comparisons have also been made with the last major drought that many Britons remember, a 1976 dry spell when people shared baths, dirty cars were the ultimate patriotic statement, and the government appointed a minister for drought.

But while that episode is remembered fondly in Britain, this time around it's proving more fractious.

Take the garden-hose ban. Not everyone, it seems, is observing it. In Sutton, residents say some recalcitrant types sneak out after dark to take a sprinkler to their prize possessions. Not all get away with it: Others, provoked by fury, civic duty, or just a meddlesome nature, have been reporting offenders to the authorities at a rate of dozens of calls every day.

And there's finger-pointing elsewhere too. Locals are furious at private water companies who are imposing usage limits but still announcing large profits - and letting millions of liters seep away in leaky pipes each day.

But the government says the onus should be equally on consumers to preserve water - by putting large objects in toilet tanks, for example, taking fewer baths, or turning the tap off while brushing teeth.

"We're concerned the message may not be sinking in," says a government spokeswoman who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity. "We should be finding ways to save water and care for the environment."

One water company suggested last week that if things get dire, it might even look at shipping in water by sea.

Already, some people are taking matters into their own hands, drilling wells on their land to tap their own source of water. Borehole drilling companies are reporting brisk business. For the first time, the Chelsea Flower Show organizers have drilled their own. Nonetheless, the show which starts Tuesday promises to offer a decidedly Mediterranean theme.

"There are a number of 'waterwise' gardens and exhibits of drought-tolerant plants," says Hayley Monckton of the Royal Horticultural Society, which organizes the annual show. "There are lots of bearded irises, olive trees, even a cactus in one of the gardens. It will give gardeners plenty to go away and think about."

Most green-fingered types in this nation of gardeners will probably go away thinking about when it's next going to rain. Elliott at the Met Office can't make firm predictions about that, though. One thing he does know: It's unlikely to be wet enough to undo the damage of the past 18 months. "This summer's hard to predict," he says. "It could go either way. But indications are that we are unlikely to see the amount of rainfall that will make good the shortfall."

For now, anyone living in Sutton just needs to make the most of what rain does fall. Clack picks up his ladder and cloths and heads off into the drizzle. "I'm going to leave my bucket out in this so I won't have to use the tap," he says.

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