Ensuring future water supplies
The water sector is entering a period of greater focus on managing water resources as it seeks to ensure future supplies. Here, Liz Bury examines what some of the water companies are doing in this area.
James Bevan, chief executive at the Environment Agency, sized up the problem in his dramatically-titled address to the Waterwise conference in March 2019, ‘Escaping the jaws of death: ensuring enough water in 2050’.
He said: “By 2050, the amount of water available could be reduced by 10 to 15 per cent, with some rivers seeing 50 to 80 per cent less water during the summer months. It will mean higher drought risk, caused by hotter, drier summers, and less predictable rainfall. On present projections, many parts of our country will face significant water deficits by 2050, particularly in the south east where much of the UK population lives.”
The number of people living in the UK is projected to reach 75m by 2050, higher by 12 per cent, or eight million people, compared to today. Meanwhile, the ageing infrastructure challenge can be appreciated by way of an inventory of 273 reservoirs published by the Environmental Information Data Centre in December 2019. The data shows that 62 per cent of the UK’s reservoirs were built in the 1900s and 28 per cent in the 1800s. The list even includes two that completed in the 1700s and one, Ouse Washes, dating from 1652.
The threat of shortfalls, particularly in the south, results largely from the dual pressures of climate change and population growth. Problems are exacerbated by creakingly-old infrastructure in places. Utilities are adopting the twin approaches of managing customer demand, predominantly by installing meters, and building new infrastructure. At the same time, they are keeping an eye on their carbon footprints.
United Utilities (UU) is spending £300 million on Thirlmere Transfer scheme aiming to secure supply into West Cumbria with a new treatment works and pipeline from Thirlmere Reservoir. The infrastructure will form a core part of the company’s Strategic Resource Zone (SRZ), one of the country’s largest such zones, when it completes in March 2022. UU’s Water Resources Management Plan 2019, which covers 2020 to 2045, notes “a very small deficit,” in the SRZ for the five years ending 2045. The strategy to close this gap includes cutting leakage and reducing demand with a metering programme helped by television personality Gloria Hunniford “explaining the benefits for particular groups of customers,” the company says. UU’s WRMP19 also points to pockets of resilience risk, which it will address through projects such as replacing sections of an aqueduct dating from the 1940s and supplying Manchester and the Pennines.
Similarly, Wessex Water has invested to ensure supply. The company’s licence to abstract from chalk streams in the north of its catchment was restricted from April 2018, while waters in its southern areas show high amounts of nitrates. The answer was a £230m project linking up previously separate parts of the network and establishing bi-directional trunk mains to effect bulk transfers. The system can elevate supplies by 200 metres from coastal areas in the south to chalk-lands in the north. The upgraded network is managed by an algorithmically-driven, real-time monitoring and control system known as ‘the optimiser’.
“At first our operators kept switching it off, thinking, ‘this isn’t doing what I would do. Over time, we convinced them - just because it stops pumping at what they thought was a key moment, it wasn’t wrong. Actually it was saving energy by not pumping between 4pm and 7pm,” says Martin Wood, grid design manager at Wessex Water.
Such projects are vital to managing future supplies. But the bigger picture is that water companies want to collaborate on supply issues across company boundaries. Lesley Tait, water resources stakeholder lead at Thames Water, says: “We’re looking at population now and in the future to see whether there are shortfalls. The next thing will be to do that process with the six other water companies in the south east and to look at integrated solutions for the whole region. That’s quite a step change in how we’re producing a plan for the next round, reflecting the scale and significance of the problem.”
Six companies in the south east - Affinity, Portsmouth, SES, South East, Southern and Thames - will together consider new infrastructure options such as water reuse and reservoirs. Portsmouth and Southern are already jointly developing the £100m Havent Thicket Reservoir, while Thames and Affinity are studying a possible new reservoir project in Oxfordshire. Ofwat has allocated funds for work on the reservoir through its Strategic Resource Options programme. This gated funding process sees money released at five stages, or gates, depending on how studies progress.
“We’re looking at an additional two million people by 2045 and up to four million by 2100. That’s equivalent to Birmingham and Leeds moving into our area. These are not small population increases. In the next 25 years, we’re projecting a deficit of 387m litres a day, or the daily water usage of 2.5m people. By 2100 that challenge gap goes to 688m litres a day. That’s if we do nothing. These are big, big numbers and that’s what we have to plan for,” Tait says.
New Water Resources North and other similar groups are also emerging as water companies size up the scale of the challenge. Utilities such as UU want to establish frameworks that enable bulk trading between water companies, including from North to South. “We will continue working collaboratively with other companies and the regulators so that these options can be considered further into the 2024 WRMP,” UU says.
There has been a degree of regulatory progress in terms of making it easier for water companies to collaborate on future supply. The Environment Agency is poised to issue a framework document in early 2020 outlining a need to provide for one in 500-year droughts, up from the current one in 200 years. “We had a near miss drought in 2012 - the Olympics year - and it made everyone take stock. It’s right to invest now, because the economic consequences of not doing it are so enormous,” Tait adds.
Martin Lunn, head of water service planning at Northumbrian Water, agrees that enabling bulk transfer trades is crucial. He says: “The biggest challenge is that, whilst demand management should be maximised, a truly twin-track approach is still essential. This means government and regulators must recognise that new resources, or large transfers, must also be allowed to be developed in a much quicker timescale than that of recent decades. The other big challenge is that whilst demand can undoubtedly be reduced by water efficiency, leakage reduction and metering, a significant amount relies on customers changing their water use significantly. This is a wider societal issue that can’t be solely accomplished by water companies.”
Meanwhile the industry has a complimentary focus on eliminating carbon emissions by 2030. Water companies in many cases report making good progress including by generating energy from sludge and reducing pumping costs through improved network efficiency. However, Wood strikes a note of caution. “My personal view is that it’s quite difficult to see how we can get to a net zero target when you’re dealing with a ratcheting up of standards that you’re trying to achieve. The optimiser without a doubt helps. But, lifting water will use energy and we can’t get away from that,” he said.
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