Farmers in southern and eastern areas have been warned they “remain at high risk of drought” in the coming months unless we see prolonged periods of rainfall, the Environment Agency said.

Despite some welcome wet weather in December that helped raise river flows and reservoir levels, overall continued dry conditions meant water levels remained low and groundwater recharge was also slow.

In its January Drought Management briefing, published on Friday (13 January), officials warned that without significant rainfall soon “more drought permits and customer restrictions on public water supplies” could be introduced by the summer.

Drought orders can ultimately allow water companies to bring in hosepipe bans and other restrictions.

Months of unseasonably dry weather have left water levels low in areas including Shropshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, East Sussex and Kent.

The EA said above average rainfall was needed over the next few months to bring water levels to where they need to be.

The report said: “Parts of the east, Midlands and south east of England are still vulnerable to drought in spring and summer 2012. We need above average rainfall for the remainder of the recharge period for the significant recovery of groundwater.”

It added: “These areas remain at high risk of drought later this year if we do not continue to have prolonged periods of rainfall.

“Drought could have significant impacts on the environment and habitats, agriculture and navigation. It may also lead to more drought permits and customer restrictions on public water supplies remain possible.”

Groundwater recovery is “very slow” and although soil moisture deficits increased across most parts of England and Wales last week (between 0.1 and 3mm), due to the drier weather, soils are still dry for the time of year, the report said.

In Anglian regions, soil moisture deficits remained “exceptionally high” at 62mm, it added. “All measured groundwater sites across the region are below normal, with one notable low and another exceptionally low.”

Soils still remain dry in many areas across the south east at 29mm and the December rainfall “did little to improve diminishing groundwater reserves”.

The Midlands region was the only area to see a decrease in soil moisture deficit (1mm), but soils still remained dry at 26mm deficit.

Further dry weather would mean further restrictions for farmers around abstracting water from rivers and reservoirs.

The EA said a number of winter abstraction licences remained in force that “we wouldn’t expect to see this time of year”.

There are 38 licences restricted in the Midlands, 110 in East Anglia and 175 in the south east.

The numbers of restricted licences were changing on a weekly basis with the change in rainfall, the report said.

“We continue to work with the NFU and are contacting licence holders who have restrictions on a daily basis to let them know when they can start taking water again.”

Meanwhile, there are no licences subject to voluntary restrictions or formal bans on water abstraction.