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LONDON, April 16 (Reuters) - A drought affecting parts of England could last until after Christmas, Britain's environment agency warned on Monday, as rain over the spring and summer is unlikely to replenish low water levels.
In a country more usually associated with damp and drizzle, drought has been declared in seventeen counties in England's southeast and central regions, after two dry winters left rivers and ground waters depleted.
Although public water supplies in these areas are unlikely to be affected, the lack of rain is taking its toll on the environment and farmers, causing problems for wildlife, wetlands and crop production, the agency said in a statement.
"A longer term drought, lasting until Christmas and perhaps beyond, now looks more likely and we are working with businesses, farmers and water companies to plan ahead to meet the challenges of a continued drought," said Trevor Bishop, head of water resources at the Environment Agency.
Bishop urged the British public to conserve water supplies.
Images of umbrella-touting spectators at the often sodden summer tennis championship Wimbledon have reinforced Britain's image as a rainy country.
In fact, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and other European countries have higher average annual rainfall than Britain.
The impact of climate change on rainfall patterns is hard to predict - but it could mean more intense bursts of rain in summer and longer wet periods in winter.
Hotter summers are also more likely, however, leading to droughts. Dry and compacted ground due to drought also means that there is a greater risk of flash flooding if there is heavy rainfall. Due to these extremes, the government is preparing a national adaptation plan which should be published next year.
UK-government funded research showed in January that flooding was the biggest climate risk facing the UK in the future.
Experts are now hoping for a steady rainy winter in 2012 and 2013 to replenish Britain's rivers and groundwaters, but 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.
Water companies are looking at where they may be able to get more water, options to share water and how they can reduce leakage further, the agency said.
The agency said it was working to help farmers top up their storage reservoirs and has introduced a process for the agricultural sector to take additional water when river flows are high. (Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Rosalind Russell)