Climate change and population growth could see UK river levels plunge by as much as 80% in the summer by the 2050s, a new report claims.

Decades of unsustainable water abstraction coupled with the increasing trend of droughts of late have caused problems for many rivers and wildlife, says the report by the Environment Agency.

To protect water levels in rivers and improve wildlife habitats the Environment Agency has launched a Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme, which seeks to identify, investigate and solve environmental problems caused by abstraction licences.

New EA figures released on Friday (27 January) showed that the programme was having a positive effect as many rivers across the country were being restored to a healthier state due to tighter rules on the amount of water being taken from them by water companies, businesses and agriculture.

More than 590 miles of rivers, including the Derwent in Yorkshire and the Stour in Kent, have had their levels restored, with some 55bn litres of water each year returned to the environment – equivalent to the annual domestic water usage of 850,000 people.

However, the EA warned that action was needed to reduce the amount of water taken from rivers at a further 210 sites across England and Wales.

Ian Barker, the agency’s head of water, land and biodiversity, said: “Many abstraction licences were granted decades ago and did not impose the conditions that we have in place today to protect our environment.

“Through our programme of investigations and actions we have improved 600 miles of rivers helping to protect the environment for people and wildlife.

“But there is still a lot to do. And it will require businesses to use water more efficiently, reducing the amount they take from rivers that are under pressure.”

The publication of Water for Life last year set out the government’s plans to continue improving the condition of our rivers by reforming the water abstraction regime.

The news on abstraction comes as parts of England prepare for drought this summer after a dry winter left rivers and groundwater levels low.

Some parts of the country have seen their the driest 12 months since records began and pressure on water resources looks set to increase, the EA warns.

The Midlands, southern and eastern regions are at high risk of drought in the spring and summer and are most likely to be hit with water restrictions.

Groundwater levels are low in Shropshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, East Sussex and Kent are described as “low”, and “exceptionally low” in East Anglia.

Met Office forecaster Helen Chivers said February would see “changeable, but cooler” weather across most of the UK.

“The rest of this week is shaping up to be cooler and dry with some harsh frosts at night when temperatures could drop as low as minus 10C,” she said.

“February will see a continuation of changeable patterns, but the emphasis is on slightly cooler weather, which could mean low rainfall.”

See also: UK rainfall map shows a decade of extremes