Agency scolds water companies over resource plans

The Environment Agency has criticised water companies over their plans for managing water resources over the next 25 years. The Agency found that their estimates of current and future water demand were highly variable and inadequate to match recent reassessments of water resources. It has also told companies not to rule out hosepipe bans which could alleviate environmental damage during periods of drought.

Following the prolonged drought of 1995 and 1996, the Government asked the Agency to revise its water resources strategy on a national and regional level. The Agency responded by asking companies to prepare resource plans for the next 25 years.

The plans are not due to be finalised until next spring, but the Agency published a review of the draft plans in November. 1 Some companies submitted plans late, and one - Cambridge Water - failed to submit one at all. Nevertheless, many companies were praised for their achievements so far.

On the key issue of the balance of supply and demand for water, some two-thirds of companies expect to invest in substantial new resource developments in the next 25 years. In all cases, the major factor in rising demand was domestic consumption, but estimates of unmeasured consumption and of future demand varied greatly between companies. Until such inconsistencies are resolved, the review concludes that it is not possible to produce a satisfactory assessment of the supply and demand balance.

The review recommends that companies should improve their estimates of current unmeasured consumption, which vary from 136-180 litres per person per day. The figures have an enormous impact on estimates of leakage, and the Agency urges companies to justify their figures and improve their transparency.

Projections for demand in 2025 should also be improved to reduce uncertainty, the review recommends. Estimates currently range from 125 to 200 litres per person per day, but companies have provided little justification of their figures. The Agency urges them to share data, models and methods and work with regulators to establish best practice.

The review notes that "most" companies have proposed new resource developments to deal with shortfalls in supply. While it describes this as a "legitimate option", it castigates some companies for paying insufficient attention to water efficiency and leakage control. It accuses them of "following a traditional and safe approach that minimises risk to themselves, but at a cost to customers and to the environment." The Agency urges a move away from this "predict and build" approach in favour of "more imaginative, sustainable water resources management."

All companies except South West Water expect unmetered per capita consumption to increase by 2025. However, projections of levels of metering vary widely. Yorkshire, Anglian, Wessex and South West Water expect 90% or more homes to be metered, while Welsh and Northumbrian put the figure at only about 30%. Recent Government plans on water charging are likely to encourage the spread of metering and reduce some of the uncertainty.

The plans were announced in November, and are little changed from proposals made in April (ENDS Report 279, pp 36-37 ). 2 Key policies include free installation of meters on request, and extension of metering to all industrial and commercial customers and to households using water for non-domestic purposes such as garden watering and filling swimming pools.

The Agency urges companies to consider the potential for more sophisticated tariff structures to differentiate between domestic and non-domestic water use. It also criticises about one-third of companies for ruling out the use of hosepipe bans. These, it says, are "an effective demand management measure in times of drought, affect only non-essential use and avoid environmentally damaging alternatives."

The review finds that companies are reluctant to rely on bulk supplies from other companies as a solution to supply problems. Sharing supplies may be one way to make the best use of resources, the Agency believes.

Companies are also encouraged to set targets for their water efficiency programmes and to measure progress against them. And the Agency recommends that water resource plans should be published, put out to consultation and subject to annual review.

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