Call for new focus on water efficiency

Major water resource developments may be needed over the next 25 years. Emphasis should be on more water efficiency, increased household metering and cutting leakages and domestic use, the Environment Agency says in a consultation on water resources.

Rising consumption, chronic wastage and climate change have put England on course for serious water shortages.

In response, the Environment Agency is working on a new water resources strategy that it hopes to finalise by the end of 2008. It is currently seeking comments on a consultation document before 31 October.1

The strategy will look 25 years ahead and replace one published in 2001 (ENDS Report 314, pp 49-50 ). A separate strategy will be produced for Wales.

The consultation document is informed by the Agency’s activities on water resources, especially its preparation of catchment abstraction management strategies (CAMS). These consider water resources on a catchment-by-catchment basis and about 80% of the 119 planned are complete. The rest are due early next year.

The emerging picture is of over-abstraction or over-licensing in aquifers and surface waters in much of the south-east and in some other more limited areas.

Over-abstraction means not enough water is being left for wildlife, and lower water levels are threatening water quality. This is because effluent discharges are not being diluted sufficiently or, in the case of groundwaters, low water levels allow the inflow of poor quality water from other aquifers.

Waters are over-licensed where there is an on-paper supply deficit, but this remains a potential rather than a real deficit because not all abstraction licences are being taken up. Old licences gave rights to take water in perpetuity and abstractors are often reluctant to surrender them, even when they may no longer need the water.

  • Abstraction reform: New abstraction licences are time-limited to allow for future review, but the conditions in old licences limit the system’s flexibility. The Environment Department (DEFRA) has been planning reform for many years. Some licences will have to be reduced or revoked, which will cost about £420 million in compensation. These costs will be met by higher abstraction charges, but DEFRA cannot decide how to calculate the bills.

    The delays have caused frustration in the Agency, which has twice consulted on the issue (ENDS Report 383, pp 43-44 ). The key issues are whether the water industry’s costs should be considered separately by the asset management planning process and whether they should be spread regionally or nationally.

    The Agency believes more flexibility in regulating abstractions is needed to manage resources. It wants the power to time-limit licences or reduce or revoke them without compensation.

  • Protecting the environment: A key driver for abstraction reform is the need to protect wildlife sites covered by the EU habitats Directive. The water framework Directive may also require that more water be left in the environment to protect and restore river flows.

    Rising temperatures and more frequent droughts as a result of climate change will put further pressure on water resources, the Agency warns. It asks how abstractions might be managed to reflect these changes.

  • Hosepipe and non-essential use bans: The Agency asks for views on whether, or how often, water firms should plan to impose the bans. Its position is that planning never to do so would require the development of extra water resources and lead to higher bills.

    Bans are unpopular in the water industry and companies would prefer never to apply them. DEFRA recently consulted on how restrictions might be made more appropriate for current water use patterns (ENDS Report 387, pp 50-51 ). Industry body Water UK suggested draconian measures such as bans on filling or topping up public swimming baths.

  • Reducing domestic use: Average water consumption in England and Wales is 151 litres per person per day, which is 36 litres more than in Belgium and 22 more than in Germany. The government has proposed a target of 125l/p/d (see pp 42-43  ).

    If new homes are built to be water-efficient and metering is increased, the Agency says it should be possible to curb rising domestic demand within ten years and then progressively reduce it after 2020.

  • Metering: The Agency wants metering “vigorously promoted” in water-stressed areas, which currently encompass all of the south-east as far west as Bournemouth and north to Cambridge, plus part of eastern East Anglia.

    In January, DEFRA and the Agency put out consultation papers that proposed making compulsory household metering easier for firms to implement in these areas (ENDS Report 385, pp 46-47 ). The Agency expects metering to be “implemented throughout the region by 2015” and promises to work with companies to help achieve this.

  • Leakage and water mains: Water firms must set their mains leakage reduction plans to achieve the “economic level of leakage”. This is the level at which the cost of saving a litre of water by reducing leaks equals the cost of obtaining the same amount from a new source.

    The Agency finds it “disappointing and surprising” that water firms do not envisage reductions in leakage rates up to 2030, even though water is likely to become more scarce and costly (see figure).

    It says the method of setting economic leakage levels needs to be reviewed. Ofwat was due to produce a review as ENDS went to press.

    Many water firms replace less than 1% of their distribution systems every year, meaning assets have a life of more than 100 years. The Agency says this is not fast enough and wants firms to incorporate replacement into their asset management plans to prevent catastrophic failures.

    In contrast, Ofwat merely requires them to monitor the condition of water mains and sewers and the incidence of failures using a “serviceability” index.

  • Water transfers: Water grids and transfers from Wales or the north of England are “not appropriate or economic” solutions to resource pressures in the south-east, the Agency insists, because the costs would be higher than local solutions. These might include regional or local transfers, new resource developments and increased water efficiency.
  • Effluent reuse and desalination: The Agency sees the greatest scope for reusing effluents in boosting river flows to allow abstraction downstream, such as Essex and Suffolk Water’s Hanningfield scheme (ENDS Report 350, pp 25-27 ). It notes that high energy costs are likely to render direct effluent reuse and desalination of sea and estuary water unsustainable.