Who are the CIWEM Water Resources Panel?

Flooding, Natural Environment, Waste & Resources

Chris Binnie is a past President of CIWEM and the founding Chair of our Water Resources Panel. He stood down from the panel in May this year and gives his perspectives on water resources, drawing on a long and storied career.

I started the Water Resources Panel in 1992, soon after the merger in 1987 of the Institution of Public Health Engineers with the Institution of Water Engineers and Scientists, the Institute of Water Pollution Control and other bodies to form the Institution of Water and Environmental Management (IWEM). Although all these institutions were involved with ensuring a reliable, safe water supply, their members all had different knowledge and skills bases, and approached the subject of water from different angles.

I had recently joined the IWEM Council and managed to persuade it that we needed a specialist panel to cover the full range of water resources. The Water Resources Panel was formed. It comprised members with knowledge of surface water sources or groundwater sources; members who were environmental regulators, later to become the Environment Agency, and members who represented the regions such as Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, researchers, and representatives of central government (useful to know what they are planning and scope for influencing it).

This membership balance has largely been maintained ever since. The panel today consists of about 25 members and meets three times a year. It acts as a professional think tank and advisor to the water industry and government, via CIWEM’s executive (led by the policy team).

A rich history within water resources

I was the fourth generation of water engineer in my family. So, by the time the Panel was formed, I had a fair amount of experience and as a consultant had been sent to places where water supplies were inadequate. I had lived in the tropics in a capital city with four hours of water every second day, so I appreciated the issues such challenges cause.

The water industry has changed immensely since the start of my working life in 1962. In the 1960s, water supply was provided by publicly owned local Water Boards. These often covered a relatively small area and often only supplied one town. No house was metered, charges being based on the rateable value. Water resource yields were calculated on the basis of the worst historical drought. In the south east, this was generally the 1932/3 drought, assumed to have a return period of about 100 years, but climate variability was not thought of.

In 1973, I was responsible for designing a new water treatment works for a small upland Water Board. The requirement then was to provide “wholesome water”. The source was an upland area with clear acidic water. In those days much of the internal household pipework would have been made of lead, a potential poison. On asking the General Manager if he had a lead problem in the household supply. He replied: “Yes, that is why we never test for it”.

The current strict water quality testing regulations came in soon after.

As water demand increased, some lowland sources became more polluted because of increased population. Due to restraints by the Treasury on finance for sewage treatment works, it was clear that there was benefit in setting up Regional Water Authorities responsible for water supply and sewage treatment for the entire river basin. Thus, as an example, in 1974 Thames Regional Water Authority covered the entire Thames catchment.

Soon after came the 1976 drought.

Drought fuels change

In South Wales there were rota cuts. From memory, only four hours supply per day in some places. In parts of North Devon standpipes were erected in the street and all houses cut off. Subsequently, this led to much greater interlinking of water resources such as the Wessex Spine Main. This was particularly helpful where it linked groundwater and surface water sources as these were affected by different drought conditions.

The last major water supply reservoir built, Carsington reservoir, nearly reached full height in 1984, prior to its collapse and rebuilding. I had trained as a dam designer, as had my uncle, grandfather and great grandfather. I had managed to qualify as an All Reservoirs Act Panel AR engineer in 1976 and in the next decade had been responsible for the design of two 70m high dams and one 55m high.

However, around 1985, supply-side solutions such as large reservoirs ceased and gave way to water demand management. The ceasing of construction of new dams was a significant curtailment of professional work for me.

Thus there has been about a 40 year gap in reservoir construction, resulting in a limited number of engineers with appropriate dam design and construction experience. Now there are eight major dams in the water resources plans, with the first, Havant Thicket, now under construction.

Advent of industry privatisation

The Regional Water Authorities had always struggled to get Treasury to agree to fund the necessary works, so in 1989 the industry was privatised. Privatisation had certain effects such as the incentive to overuse the cheaper-to-operate upland gravity sources, rather than the more expensive pumped lowland sources. During the 1996 drought, to save money, some of the upland Pennine sources were overdrawn and soon after, the supply of water in Yorkshire had to be provided by a convoy of water tankers up the M62, which became a sort of large, mobile pipe.

In the south, Thames Water’s supply to parts of South East London came from boreholes near the River Darent in Kent. The groundwater levels dropped and the Darent river bed became dry. The Chairman of the National Rivers Authority, soon to become the Environment Agency, visited the site and walked up the dry river bed. My suggestion that he also become the Chairman of the National Footpath Authority was not well received.

Legacy of CIWEM within water resources

CIWEM’s Water Resources Panel has helped move the national water resources to a more secure basis. CIWEM lobbied for household metering in a time when no households had them. Now many houses are metered and that has reduced customer use and helped to identify customer leakage. The push now is for predominantly smart meters. This is hoped to reduce household consumption from about 140 litres/head/day today to 110 litres/person/day by 2050. It is planned to reduce leakage by half by 2050, a daunting challenge in buried pipes. To the surprise of Thames Water, it was only about ten years ago that it found that it was supplying water in Islington through old leaky wooden pipes.

In 2020 the Environment Agency issued its National Framework for Water Resources. These included a requirement to allow for climate change. As climate changes drought conditions will becoming more frequent. Thus the EA now requires companies to meet a statistical 500 year drought.

The Environment Agency has now also reassessed the minimum flows to be left in rivers to support the environment, thus increasing overall minimum flows by about a quarter by 2050, so no more dry River Darents!

All these changes have been well debated in the Water Resources Panel, generally with expert presentations.

Water companies are now required to produce Water Resources Management Plans every 5 years and that has to take account of all uses, including industry including power stations and agriculture.

The assessed shortage of water has led to several water companies combining to produce Regional Water Resource Plans, some sharing water resources and some transferring spare water resources to other water companies, including several new water supply reservoirs. Such sharing was not part of the ethos historically by local water corporations or at privatisation in 1990.

This underlines the continuing need for a strong and multi-disciplined CIWEM Water Resources Expert Panel. In its 30 odd years it has only had four Chairs: me, my successor John Lawson, Colin Fenn, and currently Rob Lawson. That shows the stability of the panel. What was originally a panel of about a dozen has now become about 25, many long serving. At the recent panel meeting it was a pleasure to observe the collaborative ethos, one that I had hoped would be achieved. This will improve resilience to drought.

Final thoughts

I would like to thank all those who serve, or have served, on the panel and provided their professional wisdom to it, those who have led as Chair, and the CIWEM support staff.

Having founded it and been a member throughout, at 86, it is time for me to step down and to wish it, and its members, well in continuing its work in debating and influencing future water resources policy and development.

Chris Binnie MA,DIC, HonDEng, FREng, FICE, FCIWEM

*Editor's note: A huge thank you to Chris for all you've done for the industry and for CIWEM. The likes of you are few and far between and you leave a remarkable legacy!

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