Our water resources are under pressure. People are pressing our political classes to deliver better, more climate-resilient, nature-friendlier places.
Daniel Johns is Managing Director at Water Resources East (WRE). Having previously worked at Defra, the Climate Change Committee and Anglian Water and with a range of other non-executive roles, Johns knows a thing or two about the varying pressures on water and holistic approaches to management.
When regional water resources planning groups were set up, they did so with various forms of governance structure. WRE was arguably the most novel.
Whilst the full suite of groups were commissioned under the National Framework for Water Resources and have strong ties to the water industry, Johns says that because the pressure on water supplies in the East of England is so acute and wide-ranging WRE needed a genuinely multi-partite approach embedded in its DNA.
“It was set up as a company limited by guarantee, with an independent board and chair. This gives stronger governance around the plans produced and enables greater stakeholder engagement. It’s a unique model amongst the groups.”
WRE’s website sets out the scale of the challenge: Three of the UK’s five fastest-growing cities and the Thames Gateway, M11, A11 and M1 growth corridors are all in the region. It’s the driest region potentially in need of an extra 640 megalitres a day (ml/d) over the next 25 years. Unless this is found, housing growth and food production is at risk and pressures on the environment will increase even further.
So it’s drought-prone and yet also has one of the longest regional coastlines; 30% of its land is below sea level so sea level rise and flood risk are omni-present threats. Water - too much or too little - is a major constraint on all this growth.
There’s another factor Johns flags: ‘sustainability reductions’ to abstraction from rivers and aquifers, to support sustainable flows for nature under the water framework directive. There are chalk streams – of which England is blessed with more than 80 percent of the world’s stock – in the region and they suffer extensively from over-abstraction.
“There are some quite steep reductions in the water available for abstraction , which is creating a really big gap between what’s needed and what’s available. This is the single biggest driver of investment in WRE’s plan. Our goal is to return to nature all the water that the environment needs to thrive.”
Whilst WRE’s plan stretches out to 2050, abstraction licences are being removed from 2024 so Johns emphasises getting new measures and infrastructure in as quickly as possible is crucial.
So this deficit facing the region needs a range of solutions to address. Johns tells me a quarter of it needs to come from demand management, which includes leakage control.
There is already comparatively low leakage in the region compared to other parts but given the water stress, it’ll be needed to offset the impacts on demand from future growth. A key enabler will be more smart metering and all households being moved onto metered tariffs. Innovative tariff structures are being tested too, whereby people pay more and more per litre of water the more they use..
Other solutions will include water transfers within the region itself, four water re-use schemes and two major reservoirs – one near Chatteris in the Cambridgeshire Fens and another near Sleaford in south Lincolnshire. “These are at the core of the plan” says Johns. “They’ll provide a significant amount of water by the mid to late 2030s.”
Added to this are some desalination plants proposed to come on stream to deal with pressure from the 2040s. By then they should be able to take advantage of technological advances in that field to reduce their environmental footprint.
Beyond public water supply
Johns says central to the thinking for all these larger solutions is how they can deliver benefits beyond just public water supply, and relieve pressure on other sectors.
Agriculture is the big case-in-point here. A significant proportion of the region’s agriculture is irrigated, using 190 ml/d. Public water supply is almost ten times as much, but demand for irrigation is projected to increase much more quickly in the changing climate.
I note that despite these serious pressures, when drought hit in summer 2022 and farmers and the natural environment in the region took something of a beating there were no hosepipe bans put in place by companies like Anglian Water. I ask whether they might have helped ease the pressure.
Johns says that because the region is dry, water companies there have invested a lot already in resilience measures. Added to that, groundwater – which provides a large amount of water regionally – is naturally resilient to the kind of short, sharp conditions seen in ’22. “It’s only when you get severe and long periods of drought that you’ll need temporary use bans or more severe restrictions in the east of England” he says.
He explains the reason why agriculture and the environment did suffer particularly is because farmers rely on direct abstraction. WRE is now working directly with the agricultural sector to develop water resources plans and drought plans to be able to manage water needs better.
“The principles are the same as those used by the water industry. While the infrastructure and scale is different there’s a lot that can transfer across” Johns tells me. He says at the moment individual farmers are relying on their own abstraction licenses and part of the answer lies in them sharing, pooling and trading licenses according to their needs from year to year. That needs more strategic planning.
It’s early days in progressing all this despite quite a lot of discussion but Johns points to examples like the Lower Nene Partnership where the water company and local farmers have been sharing water when needed for several years. And he says elsewhere a group of farms have created a company with shared water licences and common infrastructure, allowing them to divide up and pay for the water they need in more of a cooperative approach.
Other approaches like the Norfolk Water Strategy programme is bringing together local authorities, the water company, abstractor groups and nature bodies to understand how nature-based solutions can be deployed – and financed – at a landscape-scale to reduce pressure on resources.
“Everyone has a role in enabling this” asserts Johns. The Environment Agency as the regulator of abstraction licences, the water companies, abstractor groups, councils, businesses, financial institutions.
Which brings us back to the start and WRE’s constitution. It has almost 200 member organisations each of whom can feed into WRE’s planning and decision-making. Crucially – whether they’re on the WRE Board or not – they have the same voting rights and influence.
It feels like a model that should breed properly collaborative and integrated, future-facing, landscape-scale water management.
To read more articles about 'a fresh water future', click here.
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