PARIS (Reuters) – France is preparing to introduce restrictions on water use in parts of the country from March, in an unprecedented move for the time of year following the driest winter in 64 years, environment minister Christophe Bechu said on Wednesday.

France has recorded 32 days without rain, weather forecaster Meteo-France said.

Watering and irrigation is already restricted in 87 municipalities in the south, which usually happens in summer, not winter, and meetings with officials on Friday and Monday will look at extending this, Bechu said.

“It’s unprecedented” at this time of year, the minister told broadcaster Franceinfo. “France is in a state of alert.”

Bechu did not spell out the possible measures but said they would be “soft” ones, and would be taken on a case by case basis when needed in a specific area to avoid having to take tougher, emergency measures closer to the summer.

As an example, filling swimming pools could be restricted in some territories, he said.

Hydro stocks are low in France compared to last year, the second lowest over ten years, and the quantity of snow in the Alps is also low in comparison with 2022, which was a particularly dry year.

“Overall, we expect low hydro power production and river levels lower for the spring and summer,” Jean-Paul Harreman, director of EnAppSys BV consultancy said.

Meteo-France said the rainfall for the next three months would be crucial for groundwater and rivers returning to their usual levels ahead of the summer.

Since August 2021, all months but three have had a rain deficit.

Farmers in the European Union’s biggest agricultural sector are watching to see if scone showers forecast from Wednesday will ease dryness ahead of the spring growing season.

While cereal crops sown before winter remain in good condition, according to farm office FranceAgriMer, there are concerns spring-planted crops such as maize and sugar beet may suffer from water stress, like during last year’s drought.

That drought led growers to increase sowing of winter crops such as wheat and leave less room for spring varieties this year, the FNSEA farming union said.

“Farmers have already adapted their sowing,” FNSEA President Christiane Lambert told reporters on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Marine Strauss in Brussels, Gus Trompiz and Forrest Crellin in Paris, editing by Ingrid Melander and Mark Potter)

FILE PHOTO: A man stands on the dried-up artificial Broc lake in Le Broc near Nice as the Alpes-Maritimes department faces a severe drought, France, October 28, 2022. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard