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Is UK Wastewater Unsustainable?

Is the UK Water Industry doing enough to address long-term sustainability of its infrastructure?  There are plenty of people who believe it is not.  Despite healthy levels of investment, our Wastewater infrastructure is still not being planned with longer-term sustainability in mind.

But don't just take my word for it:  The Institute of Civil Engineers has had a few things to say on the matter.  In its 2010 State of the Nation report, the ICE pulls no punches.    While a short-termist investment framework may have served consumers well to date, things will have to change if we are to achieve a sustainable infrastructure longer-term, they say.  For one thing, the volume of wastewater being conveyed through and treated at the end of our sewer networks must be reduced significantly.

One of the ICE's key recommendations is to "reduce the volume of water treated at wastewater works by separating flows of sewage and surface water".  What exactly are the implications of this? How far could it go - and what would it mean in terms of future investment priorities?

It brings to mind The Hydro Way – a term first coined all the way back in 1992 to summarise the principals of a treatment train which works on the basis of prevention through source control rather than cure through expensive downstream sewage treatment.   It favours keeping surface water out of the sewer network altogether, or storing and attenuating it, before releasing it to continue its onward journey downstream.   This is still very much our philosophy today.

As the population grows, the pressure to invest in treatment works will conflict head on with the requirement to reduce carbon emissions.  Meanwhile, we can expect more extreme storm events in future, sending surges of flow downstream and resulting in more polluting overflows at combined sewer outfalls.

As the ICE points out, the wastewater infrastructure ‘has many underground assets whose location, age and condition are inadequately recorded and understood'. And while the imposition of new National SUDS Standards for new developments via the Flood and Water Management Act is very welcome – the speed and extent to which SUDS will be retrofitted into the existing network is much less certain.   

How far will the Water Industry be prepared to go in separating out rainwater and foul water and how might investment priorities need to change to accommodate higher standards and increasing environmental regulation?  Surely, it's going to make even more sense in the light of the future water quality demands of the Water Framework Directive, for example, to consider rainwater as more of a resource; particularly given that it is very likely that contaminated sources of stormwater runoff associated with paved surfaces such as roads, parking lots and airports will need to be treated to remove pollutants.  It may well take a significant paradigm shift in approach for the water industry to achieve its sustainability goals.

Is the UK Water Industry sustainable?  Take part in our poll at www.web4water.com

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