Water Resources: Squaring the Circle

Water Resources

Water resources: Squaring the Circle

Water resources are complex, at times controversial and generally under increasing pressure. We must plan to store more, move more, use less, and waste less across all sectors says director of policy Alastair Chisholm.

A long, dry summer. A gravely worded new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Top level government commitments in the 25 Year Environment Plan. Ministers and regulators playing hardball on leakage. Advisors challenging on efficiency. As our population grows and our climate changes, the ability of water companies to provide for both customers and a healthy environment is a mounting challenge.

We recently published our Water Resources Specialist Panel’s latest ‘Planning Water Resources in England and Wales’ Policy Position Statement (PPS). Recognising that water resources planning has progressed significantly in recent years, there’s still room for higher ambition and improvements to how we plan for an uncertain future, say the Panel.

They’re taken for granted, still, our water resources. Flashback to the summer and there were stories in the media of families on private water supplies having to survive on a handful of litres per day. Many were acutely aware of the finite and fluctuating nature of their resource and in constrained times it became a defining feature of their lives.

Elsewhere, attitudes to proposed temporary use bans amongst probably a vocal minority (social media not necessarily being an accurate barometer of the balance of public opinion) displayed an enthusiastic refusal to consider the connectedness between levels of use and supply (“**** the drought, get the paddling pool out!”).

Somehow, we must square the circle of climate change, environmental degradation, population growth, affordability, customer demand and security of supply. And whilst it may be rather facile to say that in the face of growing risks, we must plan more and plan better, to an extent this is (a) what’s happening and (b) what we need still more of.

Security through diversity

In the PPS, our Panel highlighted ten priorities for further improvement to the way in which water resources are planned. These ranged from improving public awareness of the pressures on water resources, better data and forecasts relating to drought, population and demographics, through to rolling out extensive metering beyond water stressed areas and tackling leakage more ambitiously.

As with many challenges, solutions lie across a range of activities and this is undoubtedly the case with water resources, so diversity is a major theme. ‘Security through Diversity’ is a term coined in a water resources context in Western Australia. It represents an expansion of the more commonly discussed ‘Twin Track Approach’ of demand management and new resource development, to encompass greater integrated catchment management and transfers, as well as planning with, and for, a wider range of water uses than public water supply.

More integrated planning

Whilst factors such as leakage and metering grab headlines and political attention, much is being achieved through better use of data and more joined up planning both geographically and across sectors. As part of a more diverse approach to planning water resources, more planning on a national and regional scale is important.

Regional planning groups have existed for some years, led by Water Resources South East and now including similar equivalents in Water Resources East, Water Resources North and the West Country Water Resources Group. These are useful for setting strategic priorities and direction of travel, both for the public water supply as well as increasingly for other sectors such as agriculture.

Ideally, we would like to see planning from such groups evolve such that they become a formally integrated part of water resources management planning. Beyond this, improved integration between all levels of planning: Price Review; River Basin management Planning, Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans, Water Resources Management Plans and Drought Plans would be beneficial in achieving the kind of water efficiency savings required to ensure resilient supplies for all sectors who need water, whilst at the same time delivering the 25 Year Environment Plan ambition of a healthier environment for future generations.

Leakage must fall

Progress on reducing leakage has slowed since the early 2000s and it has become increasingly difficult for some companies to engage their customer bases sympathetically and ask them to ‘do their bit’ on efficiency when the companies may be perceived as wasteful themselves.

This situation has become politically charged, particularly since before the 2017 General Election when the Labour Party vocally criticised privatised utilities and put forward a manifesto pledge to renationalise the water industry should it win power. Ownership structures, tax contributions and senior executive remuneration came under intense media and political spotlight, along with performance on issues including leakage.

Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, ramped up the pressure and this summer ordered companies to “raise the bar” on their leakage reduction ambitions in their latest business plans. Currently about 20% of water put into supply in England and Wales is lost due to leakage.

As well as direct challenges by Ministers, formal government policy is also pointing to a need to bear down on leakage. The 25 Year Environment Plan, published in January this year set out an expectation for companies to reduce leakage by at least 15% by 2025 and in the summer, the government’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) proposed that leakage reductions of 50% on current levels should be achieved by 2050.

We welcome this increase in ambition; given the growing pressures on water resources it is going to be very difficult to make gains in other areas, particularly where public assistance is required, if leakage continues to be perceived to be unacceptably wasteful. But to achieve this there is a need for improved data and consistency in leakage reporting to underpin more accurate and robust demand estimation and forecasting and this must be an area for improvement in future.

Meter all supplies

Greater understanding of leakage is helped significantly by measured supplies and CIWEM has long advocated extensive metering beyond designated Water Stressed Areas and an increase on the 53% meter penetration which exists outside these. Not only do meters help companies identify leaks in their distribution systems, but metered households tend to have less than half the losses from their own on-property supply pipes than those not on a meter.

Perhaps more than this though, meters (particularly ‘smart’ meters) are an enabler to driving water efficiency. Southern Water has achieved a 16% reduction on household water consumption on metered properties in its recent metering programme and there is a growing sense that significant reductions in household water demand may be achieved in the medium to long term.

NIC calculated that implementing comprehensive levels of metering could achieve 400 megalitres per day reductions in household demand by 2050. And in a report commissioned by Ofwat, Artesia Consulting proposed that with ambitious measures, consumption of less than 75 litres per person per day was possible by 2050 in many if not all company areas. For comparison, current average consumption sits at just over 140 l/p/d.

Government is yet to hang its hat on a number to use as a target under its 25 Year Environment Plan, but arguably any figure settled on following the latest studies is likely to be more ambitious than the 110 l/p/d rumoured to be in late drafts only to be removed before the Plan’s final publication.

Widespread metering has historically been a rather toxic proposition for politicians, fearing that whilst there would be many winning customers (voters) who might save on their bills as a result, there would be too many disgruntled losers who would pay more.

That landscape is perhaps changing and there seems to be a growing acceptance that, particularly with smart meters, it will be possible to introduce variable tariffs which incentivise greater water efficiency, help safeguard affordability for vulnerable customers and penalise profligate use.

In an age of big data this must be the way forward, so we echo and support NIC and others’ calls for regulatory changes which will allow companies to introduce far more progressive metering right across England and Wales.

Read Planning Water Resources in England and Wales here.

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