DoE opens debate on water conservation measures

A wide range of measures to promote the sustainable use of water have been outlined in a Department of the Environment (DoE) consultation document.1 They include the use of market mechanisms to alter the pattern of water abstraction, metering, and a variety of options to encourage the use of water-saving devices in offices and homes.

The consultation paper breaks new ground in proposing that demand management should play an important role in future water resource policy. It comes in the wake of water consumption restrictions imposed on millions of consumers over the past three years, and initial attempts by the National Rivers Authority to devise solutions to the reduced river flows in much of southern and eastern Britain which have been caused by a combination of the drought and excessive abstraction (ENDS Report 209, pp 9-10 ).

Over the last 30 years, national demand for water has increased by about 1% per year. The DoE questions whether this trend can continue without causing unacceptable costs to the environment.

The consultation paper considers areas where water savings might be achieved and what measures should be implemented to bring about savings.

It suggests that there is a strong case for giving water companies a statutory duty to promote the efficient use of water. The duties of the water industry regulator, OFWAT, could be extended in parallel to embrace economy and efficiency of water use. Companies might also be required to ensure that customers are using water efficiently, for example, by providing information on water efficient appliances.

An incentive charging scheme for water is mooted by the DoE. This would alter abstraction charges to reflect the environmental costs of abstraction. The charges would provide water companies with extra incentive to reduce leakage, and minimise abstractions where they cause environmental stress.

Periodic auctions of abstraction licences are another possible market mechanism. These could increase the flexibility of the licensing system and ensure that water is not wasted on low-value uses.

On the controversial topic of water metering, the paper notes that the latest results from metering trials suggest that long-term water savings of 6-8% could be achieved. This figure does not include savings from reduced leakage, which also follow after metering, and may increase the total reduction to as much as 20%.

The economics of installing meters may be better than has been previously estimated, the report suggests. If carried out as part of a connection replacement programme and concentrated on areas where investment in new supply could be deferred, the costs might be lower than £200 per property, and could be spread over a long period.

In the home, large savings could be achieved in toilet flushing, personal washing and by more efficient appliances.

About 25% of all water put into public supply is used for flushing toilets and urinals. Advanced WC designs use only 66% of the water used by traditional devices, and dual flushing cisterns are also available which give small or large flushes as necessary. The DoE has promised to conduct trials with water-saving toilets.

New homes might be required to have showers fitted, the paper suggests, because a shower uses on average only about 40% of the water used for a bath.

The increased proportion of households using washing machines and dishwashers is a major factor in the rising demand for water. Bye-laws governing the maximum amount of water these machines may use are ten years old and should be revised, the DoE proposes. Strict water consumption criteria could also be set for these products under the EC eco-labelling scheme (ENDS Report 208, pp 27-28 ).

Urinal flushing in office and commercial premises offers considerable scope for water saving. Currently these systems work on a group flushing system, the maximum rate of flushing being specified by bye-laws. More sophisticated control systems could be made mandatory, the DoE suggests.

Other options canvassed by the consultation paper include the incorporation of rules on water wastage and misuse in the building regulations, and the reuse of low quality water from roof or hard surface drainage in applications such as garden watering and toilet flushing.

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