EU wildlife legislation is causing a shake-up in abstraction licensing - and giving water companies a headache along the way. In order to comply with the habitats and birds Directives by 2010, the Environment Agency is reviewing abstraction licences to ensure they do not damage protected sites.
Water companies have to undertake low-flow studies of at-risk sites and licences may be reduced - or even revoked - if abstraction is shown to have a negative impact. The hardest-hit area is expected to be dry East Anglia, but water companies all over the country are likely to feel the pinch.
Wessex Water is one of these. Many of the rivers and wetlands in its area are designated as special areas of conservation or sites of special scientific interest. There are concerns that groundwater abstraction in dry summers is leading to low flows in some of them.
In fact, out of the company's total deployable resource of 460 megalitres per day, over half - some 240Ml/d - comes from sources that potentially affect these sites, but the company expects the actual loss to be much lower.
Wessex Water has been working with bodies including the Agency and English Nature since 2002 to minimise abstraction and increase flows on three rivers in its area.
In 2005, the company expanded this programme to a further 15 rivers and wetlands. The low-flows project runs until 2008. Its first role is to collect data and assess impacts to inform the Agency's review of abstraction consents.
"We are looking at the whole of the Hampshire Avon catchment, that's over 20 sources," said Fiona Bowles, Wessex Water's project manager. "We are trying to identify if we are having an impact on the flow and if we are affecting the ecology."
The Wessex Water team has reviewed existing hydrological and ecological data for each river and developed surveys to fill these gaps and determine the sustainable yield from each source. Monitoring and testing will continue well into 2007.
The second element is to come up with measures to replace or offset any loss of abstraction rights. But Wessex Water will not know how big the reductions will be - if any - until 2008, when the Agency completes its review. Just as important, neither will it know the location of the cuts.
This has presented particular problems for the project team: "Normally you don't look for a solution until you know what the problem is," said Ms Bowles. But with improvements to wildlife sites required by 2010, the team could not wait until after the review to start considering solutions.
SEA fits the bill
Fortunately, over the past decade or so, a tool has emerged that is designed for early use in planning to identify problems and evaluate solutions - even when the problem is poorly understood.
Strategic environmental assessment evolved out of environmental impact assessment (EIA) and uses many of the same analytical techniques. But while EIA is mainly applied to projects, SEA moves up a level and examines the potential effects of plans and programmes.
SEA begins by establishing the baseline condition of a range of environmental parameters and assessing the impact of different policy options on each of these. Importantly, it relies on qualitative as well as quantitative data.
SEA allows an early identification of significant effects and the relative impact of different options. It can help screen out the most damaging early in the development of a plan.
Another factor that helped persuade Wessex Water to employ an SEA approach in its low-flows project was that water companies may face a statutory requirement to conduct SEAs of their next water resource plans, due in 2009. The low-flows project will directly feed into the company's water resource plan.
The exercise puts the firm ahead of the game by giving it valuable expertise in SEA - a tool that has been mainly restricted to land-use planning to date. There is little experience of applying it in a water management context.
The 2001 SEA Directive, transposed into UK legislation last year (ENDS Report 354, pp 49-50), requires public plans to be assessed for their environmental impact. The criteria establishing the plans subject to this requirement are convoluted, and uncertainty remains over exactly which plans are covered. However, it was widely assumed that water resource plans would be caught because they "set the framework for future development" in the water management sector and fulfil a "legislative, regulatory or administrative" obligation.
Surprisingly, the latest Government guidance on SEA, published in October (see p 33), removed water resource plans from the indicative list of plans covered by the Directive.
Ms Bowles was surprised, but not fazed, when water resource plans were dropped from the indicative list: "It's not going to change what we do on low flows. SEA is a good tool for identifying problems up front," she said.
Water companies would be unwise to assume they have been let off the hook and will not have to prepare SEAs for their plans. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is still considering whether water resource plans are caught by the Directive, and they may well return to the list in due course.
Considering the options
Water resource plans already consider environmental and social issues through the economics of balancing supply and demand (EBSD) process. This approach assigns monetary values to environmental impacts, allowing them to be considered alongside other criteria ranging from technical difficulty to security of supply.
EBSD consists of 14 stages that gradually whittle down a long list of all of the options to meet water demand. The first few phases screen the options by roughly scoring their impact in each of the criteria until there is a shortlist of around two dozen feasible solutions. These are then taken forward for further detailed analysis, which includes valuing the impacts, until a preferred solution is found.
Wessex Water is using EBSD on the low-flows project in parallel with SEA to explore how both approaches can be integrated and to ensure that the outcome of the project meets the requirements of the water resource plan.
Both approaches begin with the same unconstrained long-list of 94 options developed in-house - but with external consultation and agreed with a technical steering group including representatives from the Environment Agency and English Nature.
The list includes 18 demand management options like water metering, 72 new resource schemes ranging from new reservoirs to desalination plants, and four mitigation schemes like augmenting flow.
Guiding the assessment
The EBSD criteria for screening, developed over some years, are well-tested. They are based on the objectives of water resource planning, which are focused on maintaining water supply and meeting regulatory constraints in the most cost-effective way.
On the other hand, the water industry has very little experience of SEA. With the aid of consultants Entec, Wessex Water developed its own set of bespoke objectives to guide the SEA assessment.
The nine objectives draw on SEA practice in other sectors. They are also informed by the company's own sustainability targets and national and regional sustainable development strategies. The objectives are:
- Protect and enhance habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity.
- Protect and enhance landscapes.
- Protect and enhance the historic and cultural environment.
- Increase access, understanding and enjoyment of the environment.
- Maintain economic growth within the area.
- Minimise the need for road transport.
- Maximise the efficiency of resource use.
- Improve local environmental quality.
- Reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
Each objective is further broken down into sub-questions to assess the impacts in detail. For each of these, local effects and short- and long-term effects are identified and included in a matrix.
While some of these objectives overlap with the water resource plan's objectives, others do not. The focus on protecting and enhancing environmental resources, for example, has potential to conflict with the headline goal of the water resource plan to maintain the supply of treated water.
One of the main differences between the EBSD and SEA processes is the central role that SEA gives to stakeholders. The Directive requires that environmental authorities and the public be given "an early and effective opportunity" to express their views and that these views be taken account of in the plan.
Wessex Water has a long track record of working with stakeholders and it drew on this to identify a stakeholder group for the project. But even so it has not been straightforward.
"Stakeholders are being inundated with consultations: catchment abstraction management strategies, water resource plans, river basin management plans and a whole range of non-water things. They're absolutely snowed under," said Ms Bowles. "There's a real risk of consultation fatigue."
The project has held two workshops so far and the engagement is already paying dividends. One of the difficulties has been a lack of information on the options at this early stage. "It's a new experience, having done years of EIA, to leave behind the detailed data and to go up to a strategic level," said Ms Bowles.
Stakeholders are proving a valuable source of information for the project and filling some of the data gaps. NGOs and recreational user groups have lobbied for many years on the impact of abstraction on the rivers under investigation and have some data on their local conditions.
The fact that SEA requires early involvement of stakeholders is also useful. Wessex Water's experience is that it is far better to engage interested parties from the start of the project rather than present a final solution and try to generate support.
But working with stakeholders is not straightforward and comes with a new set of challenges.
"If you ask five people, you will get five opinions; you can't adjust your project every time. We're very concerned about raising expectations," said Ms Bowles. She has been careful to make sure that all of the stakeholders understand their role in the process and what they can expect to get out of it.
While the public is being consulted more and more on environmental decisions, many organisations struggle to feed the views into the final outcome (ENDS Report 364, pp 29-32). Wessex Water does not appear to have this problem. "Stakeholders do have an effect," insisted Ms Bowles. "In practice, they influence how we score the environmental and social effects and that feeds through to the ranking of each option."
Another more practical problem is that working with stakeholders takes a lot of time. This has to be factored into project schedules, and it has been tough for the team who are already working to tight - and immovable - deadlines.
"You have to allow lots of time in programming for stakeholders," said Ms Bowles. "But we don't stop working between workshops, we are still collecting data and working up options."
While speaking to the public throughout a project can help to head off problems and build trust and support, Ms Bowles is under no illusion that engagement will solve all the problems.
"The worry is that you go all the way through this process, and come up with a new reservoir as the perfect answer, then everyone else will come out of the woodwork."
Nevertheless, she is sure that involving stakeholders has been worthwhile and pays dividends in the long run. "Consulting with stakeholders helps you make sure you've identified all of the issues, and helps you refine your plans. It's definitely worth the effort."
Bucking the trend
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology estimated that each SEA is likely to take between 50 and 100 days to complete. It is difficult to separate the work done on EBSD, preparing the water resource plan and carrying out SEA. But even so, Ms Bowles thinks that the POST figures are an underestimate.
Much of the time has been taken up with developing methodology and with tailoring the process to the water industry. Future assessments will benefit and should take less time.
SEA works best when well integrated into the planning process. Keeping SEA close to planners increases the likelihood that it will produce useful outputs and influence the final plan.
Wessex Water has bucked the trend towards outsourcing among other large companies. Instead of farming out EIA and environmental analysis work, the company retains an experienced environmental team. It carries out most work in-house and can draw on its own technical expertise.
"Part of our culture is to do things ourselves," said Ms Bowles. "We ask for help when we need it and contract in specialists to fill gaps, such as Entec on starting SEA and using the EBSD. But we run the show."
The company also has plenty of experience working with stakeholders. The long-running concerns over abstraction and low-flow rivers have encouraged the company to reach out to interested parties. It is not scared of discussing the issues at public meetings and workshops.
Over the past few years it has also gained valuable experience of working in partnership with other organisations. This opens the door to new sources of information and helps to avoid duplication.
One major research element of the project has been to pool expertise with the Environment Agency to develop a computer model of chalk groundwater and river flows, which simulates flows of rain through the aquifer to the river and allows a more accurate assessment of the impacts of abstraction.
Embarking on SEA has been a steep learning curve for the Wessex Water team. It has involved gaining new skills and borrowing techniques and models from other sectors for modification to fit the water management context. But Ms Bowles is positive about the experience.
"I began this hoping that SEA would help provide a framework for assessing the environmental effects, alongside operational and financial considerations. So far it appears that we should get a lot more out of SEA than we've put in."