Water resource plans disappoint as drought looms

Water companies' proposed water resource plans show a disregard for demand management and environmental constraints, according to an Environment Agency assessment. The findings come as leakage levels are on the rise and the country appears to be on the brink of drought: without significant winter rain there will be shortages next summer.

After a hot, dry summer and a very dry autumn, the Agency and many water companies have begun appealing to the public to save water. February to October rainfall across the UK this year was the second lowest for 74 years.

Some reservoirs in the south-east are less than 30% full and some river flows are very low, the Agency says. Groundwater levels in many areas are also extremely low for the time of year. Without at least average rainfall over the winter, water shortages next summer are likely.

The prospect of drought has cast water companies' water resource plans into sharp relief. The Agency issued its review of the draft plans in November.1The finalised plans are due next April. The Agency will follow up with final advice on their adequacy to Ministers in June.

The plans, looking 25 years ahead, should follow policy and methodological guidance from the Government and the Agency. Key points are that companies need to maintain adequate security of supplies by pursuing demand management alongside the development of sustainable new supplies.

The Government expects companies to maintain tight control over leakage and provide a role for water metering. It has also instructed companies to reach agreement with the Agency, English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales in protecting wildlife sites damaged by abstraction, in line with the EU habitats Directive.

Investigations into the impact of abstractions on many such sites are currently in progress and it is not yet clear to what extent companies will need to cut their abstractions and find alternative supplies.

The Agency concludes that more than half of the companies have "significant further work" to do to finalise their plans (see Table 1). In some cases, it has asked for clarifications in the form of a new draft plan.

Despite this, the industry body, Water UK, claimed that its water resources planning was still "on target".

The Agency found that many plans made no allowance for likely reductions in resources following from the programme to reduce damaging abstractions. Many firms had paid insufficient attention to demand management measures, and some had even planned to allow leakage rates to rise.

Companies predict that domestic demand will increase by 15% by 2030, and almost two-thirds of this will occur even if per capita consumption remains constant. In other words, increasing population and the growing number of households, particularly in the south and east, will play a major part.

Uncertainties about the supply and demand balance are a worrying factor in resource planning. The Agency draws attention to unexplained variation in consumption and occupancy rates between areas which may well herald problems for the future.

The uncertainties are such that companies may find that what they had assumed was high unmetered consumption is in fact unrecognised leakage. Such has been the experience of Thames and, more recently, Severn Trent. Both have been forced to increase their leakage estimates and are struggling to gain control of losses.

The latest report on leakage by economic regulator Ofwat revealed that Thames' losses reached 925 megalitres per day in 2002/03.2 This is the highest level yet, and accounts for almost a third of all water leakage in England and Wales. Severn Trent's reported leakage leapt from 340Ml/d in 2001/02 to 550Ml/d in 2002/03.

Companies' resources plans are full of headline-grabbing new resource projects, including ten new or extended reservoirs, eight desalination plants, four aquifer recharge schemes and one effluent reuse scheme (see Table 2).

Building a new reservoir will take 15-20 years, and companies say that many of these schemes must begin shortly if they are to be ready on time. They will need the Agency's blessing to shepherd the schemes through the inevitable public inquiry.

Despite the plethora of proposals, the Agency believes that many companies have neglected to consider demand management. And some which propose major new resource developments have very modest proposals on water metering (see Table 3).

Thames is promoting a major new reservoir near Abingdon in Oxfordshire by 2021, despite having particularly high rates of leakage in London and still little idea where this water is going.

Thames also has remarkably modest proposals for metering. With only a projected 39% of properties metered by 2030, it will have among the lowest proportions of metered customers in the country.

Thames said that 40% of its customers in London, accounting for 27% of its total customer base, live in flats. These are both difficult to meter because of common supply pipes and present limited scope for water savings because they have no gardens.

Nevertheless, the company will have to justify its position to the Agency, which says that low levels of metering are "unlikely to be appropriate, especially where companies are also proposing resource developments."

Other companies are predicting quite high meter uptake, but proposing no mechanism to bring it about. One option, already being taken up by Bournemouth and West Hampshire Water, is to meter all properties on change of ownership. South East Water and Folkestone and Dover Water also propose this strategy.

Folkestone and Dover also plans to apply for "water scarce" status in 2009. This will enable it to introduce compulsory metering of households.

Other companies propose quite high levels of metering but do not anticipate reduction in demand. The Agency suggests that metering cuts demand by an average of 9%.

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