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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.