Where have the rivers gone?

River beds are dry, wildlife is suffering, but no one has come close to mentioning a drought. What’s going on?

Is this a footpath meandering under an old bridge?  I’m afraid not. It’s actually a river: the River Quin in Hertfordshire in spring this year.  And plenty of other rivers, particularly in the south and east of England, have looked like this for periods this spring and early summer: the River Rib in Hertfordshire, the Chess in Buckinghamshire, the River Colne in London and many more.

Is this what you expect your local river to look like under normal conditions?

It’s true that parts of the country haven’t seen much rain, despite some heavy downpours. Indeed, 2016/2017 was a particularly dry winter and if the dry weather continues into the autumn, we may find ourselves on the cusp of an official drought in the south east.  But right now water is coming out of my taps just fine and I’ve not heard any mention of a hosepipe ban. I wonder what the fish in the River Quin think about that? Perhaps they should move to my local paddling pool?

Dry spells and drought are likely to become more frequent because of climate change, but, before we blame everything on the weather and climate change, I want to highlight the underlying problem. In many parts of the country we’re pumping more water out of our rivers than can be naturally replenished, in many cases we’re using water wastefully and national regulations around water use are insufficient to stop our rivers drying up.

WWF’s recent report, Water for Wildlife: tackling drought and unsustainable abstraction, brings attention to this crisis: the scale of over-abstraction from rivers, how the current approach to preventing damage by abstraction is taking too long, how wildlife is suffering, and how many people are concerned by the current state of affairs.

  • 24% of rivers in England are at risk from too much water being abstracted.
  • Low river flows affect the whole river ecosystem, from the smallest bug to the biggest fish.
  • At the current rate of progress, it could be 2050 before today’s damage is addressed.
  • 68% of people are worried about the impact on the environment of taking too much water from rivers.
  • Over 80% of people agree the Government should do more to encourage homes and businesses to be more water efficient.

Rivers aren’t just important for wildlife, they’re also important to people – to us. They help us connect to the natural world: we like to walk and picnic by rivers, let our children paddle and our dogs swim in rivers, and use rivers for fishing and boating. Thriving, flowing rivers also bring many economic benefits.

We must restore our rivers before it is too late. As well as working with our colleagues in Blueprint and supporting the Blueprint for PR19 campaign, at WWF we’re calling on the Government to urgently address how we’re managing water, and for water companies to think about alternative ways of meeting water needs in their 2020-2025 business plans.  Specifically, we’re asking for:

  • A national strategy to cut water waste to include engaging the public about the value of water, making every home and business water efficient, and making paying for water fairer through universal water metering
  • A revised process for dealing with abstraction licences that are already causing damage to habitats and wildlife. This would include support for water companies and other abstractors, such as farmers and businesses, to enable them to cope with potential reductions in the amount of water they’re able to abstract from rivers
  • Environmental limits on all water abstractions, to ensure there is enough water for wildlife in every river, and a mechanism to manage how reductions in abstraction are managed and shared across river catchment areas
  • Important European Legislation that protects rivers, such as the Water Framework Directive, to be fully transposed after Brexit.

The need for these changes have long been recognised by the Government: their 2011 Water White Paper, Water for Life, promised new legislation to address over-abstraction; and the 2013 paper, Making the Most of Every Drop, set out the Government’s abstraction reform proposals.

But, Brexit has put pressure on parliamentary time, and these urgent reforms seem to have been kicked into the long grass. We strongly urge the new government to reconsider and push water management up the agenda, and for water companies to set out how they will sustainably manage abstraction in their next round of business plans – before we stumble across more lost rivers.

Catherine Moncrieff
Freshwater Programme and Policy Manager, WWF-UK

We need to protect the environment for future generations

One of the main things I’m taking away from the election result was the voice of the young and I don’t necessarily mean under 25s – it looks like the under 45s swung the vote. The young clearly want change and I still feel I am in that bracket. So I challenge the government to show us, show us that it is not just the next five years that matter but the future. The future for those first time and second time voters, the future of our children, the future of our planet.

So, what could the Government do to safeguard the environment for the future – for our future – 80% of the British public want the environment to have the same if not stronger protection after Brexit[1] and wetlands alone provide over £7 billion in services a year.

Perhaps we should look to Wales. Back in 2015, the Welsh Government created an Act dedicated to safeguarding the future from short-term thinking, known as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This means that all public bodies in Wales now need to consider how their decisions and policies help towards the goals under the Act. These goals include a resilient Wales and a globally responsible Wales. The former looks to “maintain and enhance a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example climate change).” We have no similar driver in England, simply a repeated rhetoric “that we will leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, which you’d think couldn’t be hard considering less than one fifth of our water bodies are in good ecological health and 13% of wetland species are nationally threatened[2].

Our children have less contact with nature than ever before and miss out on the health and well-being benefits that result. Yet housing plans threaten to stifle communities in an attempt to build as many houses as cheaply as possible. Sustainable drainage can help provide wildlife habitats in urban environments whilst also reducing surface water flood risk, improving water quality as well as enhancing local areas. Natural capital and environmental and social cost benefit should be integrated across ALL Government departments and create opportunities and drivers to make our cities bluer and greener.

There are so many opportunities ahead of us, including creating an agricultural system which delivers public goods for public money and offers a secure future for young farmers. However, Government has kicked into long grass proposals to put in place a sustainable and fairer water abstraction regime. Climate change will bring much more erratic weather events and we need to be certain that our systems are resilient and as effective as they can be to deal with these changes. Government must deliver a sustainable abstraction regime by 2020.

We also need to restore, create and enhance wetlands. Not just because coastal wetlands can help buffer communities against sea level rise or because restoring river habitats can help reduce flooding, but because ponds and lakes and wetlands are important for their own sake, for the wildlife that rely on them and the enjoyment we get from them.

If Westminster had the same duty as those in Wales placed upon them would it make a difference? Let’s not keep hearing that the Government will leave the environment in a better state than they found it – it’s time to show us.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

[1] https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/yougov-survey-brexit-environment-august-2016-101683.pdf

[2] http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/State%20of%20Nature%20UK%20report_%2020%20Sept_tcm9-424984.pdf

Preventing Pollution – progress towards a better environment

In March, Thames Water was fined for pollution incidents at six sites in the Thames Valley during 2012-14.  A combination of equipment and management failures meant the sites weren’t able to treat the volumes they were designed to, and discharged untreated wastewater to the environment.

We take full responsibility for what happened. We didn’t protect the environment we rely on – and it is up to us to put that right.

So what are we doing to make good what happened – and to reduce the risk of problems recurring?

First of all, we have paid £400,000 in compensation to organisations directly affected.  And we have added £1.5 million to our Community Investment Fund, ring-fenced for projects to help the rivers, wildlife and local environment in the vicinity of the incidents.

We’ve also strengthened the team looking after the region in which the incidents took place, so there are more staff, each with fewer sites to deal with.

Of course, people want to know what we’re doing to avoid similar problems elsewhere.  The answer lies partly in investment, with £26 million spent since the incidents to help ensure we meet sewage treatment standards, and reduce the risk of pollution from all our sites.

Severe weather and the devastating impact of wet wipes and other ‘unflushables’, were common factors across the incidents.  It is up to us to insulate our customers and the environment from these pressures, so, much of our focus has been to ensure we are more resilient to their effects.

This includes an £18 million programme to refurbish the screens that protect our treatment works from items including wet wipes, which have a crippling impact when they ball together, clogging pipes and breaking pumps.

But arguably the most significant changes we’ve made have been in our Wastewater Operational Control Room. In addition to doubling staffing levels, we’ve transformed the way we work, harnessing technology to take a much more proactive approach to managing our sewage works, pumping stations and sewer network.

This includes a new system for visualising near-live data so we can pre-empt potential problems.  We know, for example, from analysing previous incidents that sewage pumping stations can show unusual patterns of energy use before failing.

By tracking their energy use we can see where this is happening, and have intervened on up to 15 different occasions within a single month – in some cases averting potentially serious pollution incidents. By capitalising on the insights data can offer, we are shifting our focus from reacting to alarms, to intervening to prevent assets failing, flooding and pollution.

On the sewer network, our storm chasing project is perhaps the most innovative and influential change we’ve made.

Historically, we’ve used weather forecasts covering periods of hours, and large parts of our region – helpful in preparing for slow-moving weather fronts, but not the short, sharp storms that can quickly overwhelm our sewers.

We’re now using advanced weather radar, forecasting several hours ahead and showing changes at 15 minute increments, on a 2km grid, to pinpoint when and where a storm will hit. This makes it easier for us to proactively pre-position the teams and equipment we’ll need to deal with the potential impacts. It’s not so much chasing storms as getting ahead of them.

At the same time, a new Logistics Management Centre and ten distribution hubs with stocks of the kit we need to respond to events, means we can despatch crews to proactively manage the risk of potential incidents at a local level.

Taken together, these improvements have supported a significant reduction in pollution incidents from their peak in 2013.

The Blueprint for PR19 challenges companies to aim for zero category one, two and three pollution incidents and 100% self-reporting – and these are mirrored in our own aspirations. There’s much more we need to do to get there, including making our operations more resilient to the effect of storms – but we believe we’re making real progress.

Please don’t take my word for it. We are holding open days later this year at all the sites where incidents took place so you can see for yourself what we’ve done, and meet the teams who are doing everything they can to protect the environment on which we all rely.

Lawrence Gosden
Managing Director, Wholesale Wastewater – Thames Water

Pollution – The biggest problem facing our freshwater environment

For one of my first field visits for WWF, I visited the Hogsmill, a much loved chalk stream in South London. I was shocked to see evidence of raw sewage and rags entering a river that is so vitally important for wildlife and recreation within the local community.

The Hogsmill Riverside Open Space, an area much enjoyed by children and dog walkers alike, is also home to Ewell Storm Tanks. These storm tanks were added in the 1930s to increase the capacity of Hogsmill Sewage Treatment Works (STW) and were inherited by Thames Water from the local authority in the 1960s, with an operational discharge consent designed for ‘occasional use’. The tanks were to provide a relief mechanism to prevent back up of sewage through the network at times of exceptionally high rainfall and use. Although ‘occasional use’ is not defined, it is not expected to exceed a few times a year. But, when the South East Rivers Trust carried out testing in 2016, they found that there were 14 discharge events between January and May.

Last month the evidence was clear to see, even after a long period of dry weather, a path from the storm tanks down to the river had formed littered with wet wipes and sanitary products. And that is only the visible evidence. Water samples captured during a discharge event at the Ewell Storm Tanks showed elevated E. coli levels downstream of the outfall, highlighting the potential risk to human health as the river is used for recreational purposes, with children and dogs often entering the river.

An outflow drain filled with sewage rags entering the Hogsmill River (L). Rags caught in branches in the River (R).

But the Hogsmill sewer overflow is not a one off – there are thousands of these across the country in every water company area. With population growth, more and more concrete covering permeable surfaces, and rain washing straight off of roads, there is an increasing demand on the sewerage system. Therefore, it is likely that these sewer overflows will spill raw sewage into Britain’s rivers more frequently and with greater volume. This is likely to be further exacerbated by predicted climatic changes with increases in both the frequency and intensity of rainfall events.

That’s why Blueprint is calling on water companies and regulators to get a grip on sewer overflows and stop pollution of our waters. In the Blueprint for PR19, we are calling for:

  • Strategic long-term wastewater plans – these are essential to prepare for the future and should ensure sewerage and treatment systems are sufficient to prevent pollution in the context of population growth and climate change
  • Targeting zero pollution incidents – it is not enough to just reduce the number of major incidents, dealing with pollution for sewer overflows should be a top priority and we welcome an increase in monitoring to understand the impact sewer overflows are having
  • Dealing with emerging pollutants – pollutants must be dealt with at source by promoting less harmful alternatives and investing into innovative natural treatment solutions, such as wetlands
  • Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) prioritised – SuDS should be prioritised within a company’s own drainage scheme and used to reduce peak flows in the sewerage system, avoiding the need to invest in large underground pipes and providing biodiversity and amenity for local communities.

Alice Moore
UK Freshwater Assistant, WWF

Ground breaking multi-sector approach to long term water resource planning

The Eastern region of England is home to some of the UK’s most beautiful natural sites and most fertile agricultural land. It is also home to three of the UK’s five fastest-growing cities; is the driest region in the UK and one of the most vulnerable to future climate change. So how do we make sure that we can meet the water needs of people and businesses in the east into the future, whilst also supporting a thriving environment? This challenging question is at the heart of the Water Resources East (WRE) initiative, led by Anglian Water, and is a key theme of Blueprint’s campaign on the Price Review 2019 (PR19).

WRE is an innovative multi-sector, collaborative planning approach to developing a long-term water resource strategy for the East.  Instead of the traditional approach, in which water companies look at water resource planning for their respective areas in isolation, WRE brings together all the relevant water companies, along with representatives from the agricultural, power and environmental sector, to co-create the long-term strategy using state of the art modelling technology, visualisation and decision support tools.

There are three key stages in the WRE technical process, which are summarised below. These stages are based on a framework known as Robust Decision Making (RDM) and is the first time this processes has been tested in the UK for water resources planning.

1. How might the current system perform in the future?

The implications of a range of possible but plausible future climate, growth and behavioural scenarios on the water industry, agriculture, power and the environment have been modelled using a powerful regional simulator. In total, over 350 unique future scenarios have been modelled. Each sector has agreed a small number of key metrics that are used to provide an indication of how their interests are impacted in the alternative futures modelled. For example, future performance against an environmental flow regime is one of the key metrics. Other metrics include the reliability of water for supply domestic customers, agriculture or energy. The simulator brings all these future scenarios and the performance metrics together at a regional scale to provide a baseline vulnerability assessment – an assessment of what might the future look like without any investment to improve water resilience.  For non-water company stakeholders, the baseline vulnerability assessment is particularly interesting, as it shines a light on how their particular interests may be affected in the future and highlights the need for action.

2. What interventions could we take to be more resilient in the future?

A range of possible interventions are incorporated into the simulator, such as new reservoirs, water transfers or increased demand management. The simulator then seeks out and identifies portfolios of interventions that perform best into the future against one or more of the metrics. Visualisation tools are used by participants to identify the portfolios that work best for their sector, but also to see what works best for others. At this point discussion around any ‘trade-offs’ can take place to find a small number of preferred portfolios that work best across multiple interests.

Screen shot of one of the visualisation tools used in WRE showing portfolio performance against a selection of metrics.

3. What is the long-term Strategy?

The short list of preferred portfolios is then taken forward to be stress tested in more detail under the future scenarios, to help identify which portfolios perform best in a range of futures and develop the long-term WRE Strategy. The sequencing of interventions is considered and a non-statutory Strategic Environmental Assessment is prepared to inform the selection of the preferred WRE Strategy.

The WRE initiative is currently at Stage two. A two-day workshop in early May started to reveal a number of portfolios that looked promising across multiple sectors, and these will be explored further in a workshop in June. The aim is to have the long-term WRE Strategy developed by autumn 2017, so that it can inform Water Resource Management Plans and Business Plans being prepared by the water industry as part of PR19.

The approach being taken by WRE is ground breaking both in terms of the technology, such as the simulator model and visualisation tools, but perhaps more importantly in the way that it actively involves participation from a range of interested sectors in co-creating the long-term Strategy. The process is raising the understanding of the challenges ahead across sectors on water availability in the east, and is fostering a genuine will to collaborate on solutions that can deliver multi-sector benefits.

Hannah Stanley-Jones (Anglian Water) and Nathan Richardson (RSPB).

Resilient Water – How to Manage Our Precious Water Resources

Most people wouldn’t believe that England’s green and pleasant lands are water-stressed; in fact, in recent years it seems as though the threat of severe flooding has rarely been out of the public eye. Nonetheless, we now find ourselves facing the real possibility of a formal drought being declared this summer, having experienced one of the driest winters for decades and an early Spring that saw just 15% of the long-term average rainfall in the Thames catchment.

Climate change and the increasingly variable weather that it will bring – from catastrophic floods to long periods of drought – need to be planned for. Unfortunately, thus far the majority of water companies have failed to do this meaningfully and continue to rely far too heavily on water abstraction from rivers and groundwater sources, rather than investing in increased winter storage, reducing leakage and water reuse. Water companies have also failed to effectively manage water consumption and make efforts to reduce demand, and we remain one of the only European countries without a universal water metering programme in place.

With population growth in the south east in particular, a lack of investment has meant massively increased pressure on our precious rivers (along with the aquifers that feed them), and 23% of England’s rivers are now at risk of over-abstraction, with serious environmental damage possible. This year some of our most valuable chalk streams – such as the Rivers Chess, Ver, Gade and Colne – are already running dry, and this could be catastrophic for aquatic wildlife over the months ahead.

The bare river bed of the River Chess in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.
The bare river bed of the River Chess in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, which has run dry due to a combination of low winter rainfall and over-abstraction.

The Government promised to reform the long-outdated not-fit-for-purpose water abstraction regime as far back as 2011, yet this process continues to be kicked into the long grass. However, the water companies’ Price Review 2019 (PR19) process gives a fantastic opportunity to achieve some extensive investment in improving environmental resilience through a number of key mechanisms. Blueprint has a number of priorities for these plans, and are calling for:

  • All abstractions to be brought within sustainable limits and controls in place to prevent deterioration – while some good progress is being made (as part of the Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme in PR14), companies need to make faster improvements, especially for those water bodies already failing to meet Water Framework Directive standards due to over-abstraction.
  • The risk of deterioration due to increased abstraction to be addressed – over 300 water bodies have been identified as ‘at risk’ if more water is abstracted in the future, albeit within currently licensed limits. Companies need to investigate these risks with mitigation measures proactively implemented and impacts avoided.
  • Supply side options to be environmentally acceptable – options such as bulk water transfers, water reuse and new reservoirs, should only be developed where it can be demonstrated that all reasonable efforts to reduce demand have been implemented.
The River Colne in Hertfordshire
The River Colne in Hertfordshire – a fantastic and extremely popular river for angling – is already on its bones.

Get behind the Blueprint for PR19 campaign to encourage water company investment in environmental resilience, using #BlueprintPR19 on Twitter.

Find out more about the ongoing drought and reform to abstraction in this Angling Trust video.

James Champkin
Campaigns Officer, Angling Trust

Protecting water through catchment management

Guest blog by Severn Trent Water on catchment management, a key theme within Blueprint for PR19.

Over 2015-20, Severn Trent is investing £21 million in making environmental improvements through catchment management, including working in partnership with farmers and landowners to reduce agricultural run-off into rivers. Through partnership working, pesticides such as metaldehyde (a chemical often used to control slug populations) are prevented from entering watercourses. In addition to improving river quality, there will be a number of other benefits, such as a reduction in treatment costs and improvement in the river environment as a whole.

In 2016-17, Severn Trent’s agricultural advisors worked with over 1,200 farms. We are now on track to engage with 4,000 farms, covering over 10,000km2, by 2020.

We are also funding two catchment schemes for farmers to tackle diffuse pollution across the region:

Severn Trent environmental Protection Scheme (STEPS)

A voluntary scheme funded by Severn Trent for livestock and arable farmers / landowners in priority catchments

  • 50% grant funding up to a maximum of £5,000, to help farmers make land management and capital infrastructure improvements that benefit water quality and the environment
  • Applicants can apply each year between January to mid-March until 2020
  • Prioritisation given to measures that help reduce pesticides
  • Over 500 applications have been received under this scheme.

Farmers as Producers of Clean Water (FaPCW)

  • Metaldehyde reduction initiative to encourage farmers to adopt practices that help reduce metaldehyde in raw water
  • Metaldehyde levels tested upstream and downstream of watercourses fortnightly from September until December each year, until 2020
  • Farmers rewarded up to £8/ha on land planted with winter wheat and/or winter oilseed rape – payment dependent on the levels of water quality improvement
  • In 2016, 26,000ha were signed up under this scheme.




To further support the catchment management approach, at Severn Trent we have been participating in the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA), working with others to address water quality issues. For example, we are involved in Moors for the Future, a project through which significant EU funding has been secured to undertake peatland restoration work around the Derwent Valley reservoirs.

Katherine Filby
Principal Catchment Management Scientist, Severn Trent Water

Making the case for catchment management

The water industry, perhaps more than any other sector, can be highly impacted by what happens across the catchments in which companies operate. Diffuse water pollution from agriculture, for example, can pollute raw drinking water sources and necessitate costly treatment that uses energy and chemicals, whilst pollutants from multiple sources limit the capacity of waterways to accept discharges from waste water treatment works.

Our freshwater ecosystems require sufficient water to remain healthy, but abstraction for public supply, industry and irrigation for agriculture mean that water scarcity is prevalent in parts of the country, with climate change and population growth likely to exacerbate the problem. A collaborative approach is needed involving all sectors, in order to build resilience and embed a more sustainable approach to managing our water resources.

Water companies are already moving away from the historic focus on managing their own land and infrastructure, as the benefits of influencing management of water across the catchment are increasingly being recognised.

  • Schemes like South West Water’s Upstream Thinking and United Utilities’ (UU) SCaMP have led the way; UU’s scheme saw thousands of hectares of upland habitat restored, drainage channels blocked, and livestock numbers cut, bringing 98% of the SSSIs into favourable condition and realising improvements in water quality through reductions in colour, suspended solids and a reduced risk of cryptosporidium.
  • Severn Trent’s current Environmental Protection Scheme, STEPS, sees landowners being paid based not on what they do on their land, but on the actual water quality benefits delivered.
  • Wessex Water is using ‘reverse auctions’ to allow farmers to bid for funding to establish cover crops, preventing soil runoff over winter and reducing nutrient inputs into the river system, far more cost effectively than could be done by the company through other means.
  • Where Catchment Partnerships have played a role in these schemes; the value of this collaboration is notable (see pg5).

The 2019 Price Review (PR19) presents an opportunity to build upon all of this delivery. The case for catchment management to protect or improve water quality is clear, illustrated by the above examples and many others. The knock-on benefits are also potentially considerable; improved landowner relations and wider land management practices, biodiversity gains and reduced flood risk. The scope to extend catchment management to deliver water resources outcomes is also something that warrants much greater consideration. Many of the natural solutions to addressing flood risk that slow the movement of water through a catchment and reduce rapid runoff also help to augment baseflow in rivers during times of drought. Their low cost and high natural capital delivery compared to built infrastructure projects indicates a potential for much more widespread uptake of such approaches.

These interventions all require engagement with landowners, farmers, fisheries, and communities, making the potential value of Catchment Partnerships in this delivery clear. The Rivers Trusts, Wildlife Trusts, Catchment Sensitive Farming Officers, landowner or fisheries associations and others involved in the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) already have strong relationships with the very people that need to be engaged if such schemes are to be successfully delivered and maintained. The partnerships are also well placed to undertake biodiversity monitoring, scheme promotion and other aspects of delivery that may not be the traditional preserve of water companies.

The value of these partnerships is certainly something that not all companies have fully tapped in to, and PR19 should provide the catalyst for this to change. Indeed, the Catchment Based Approach, established to protect and enhance our water environment, should be increasingly seen by water companies as a key means of protecting the very resources upon which their businesses depend.

Ali Morse
Water Policy & Catchment Technical Specialist, The Wildlife Trusts


Rob Collins
Head of Policy and Science, The Rivers Trust

More than just a meter

Guest blog by Southern Water on Using Water Wisely & Pricing it Fairly

Between now and September 2018, water companies in England and Wales will be drawing up plans for their investments between 2020 to 2025. Companies are required to produce these plans for the Periodic Review 2019 (PR19), and Blueprint believes that nature should be at the heart of these plans.

In 2010, Southern Water began its journey to universal metering. First, we made the case on the grounds of resource – the need to cut demand to help secure supplies in our water–stressed region. Next came the economic case – it’s cheaper to meter everyone together as part of a well-planned, five-year programme, than to wait for individual customers to move house or put in ad hoc requests to have a meter installed. Then, we started on the customer case – it’s fairer to pay only for what you use, and meters can help you to save money.  Surely, that’s all there would be to it?

Well, it turned out that there was quite a lot more. From day one, we knew that our programme would be in the limelight. We were the first company to tackle this on such a large scale. Nearly half a million meters would need to be installed within five years, across the counties of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire where, incidentally, six other water companies also operate. It was a first for all of us – Southern Water, Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water and our customers – and it was our customers who helped drive the programme.

As you would probably expect from a company made up largely of engineers, our first thoughts turned to how we were going to physically get the meters in the ground. But, by putting customers at the centre of our thinking, we began to look at the programme as a unique opportunity to engage with people about our service, rather than as a problem to be overcome.

We began by involving our customers in our decisions about the route we would take. We consulted with them on everything, from the way in which meters were fitted, to the timing and tone of the information we gave them, to the support we offered to those who might struggle to pay their bills. We gathered and analysed a range of data sources to help us target those most likely to find it difficult to make the change, and used this to develop a package of support for customers who needed it most.

The programme also empowered customers to take control of their water use. Our “Green Doctors” visited around 60,000 homes over the five-year period to carry out water and energy audits, and help customers make the jump from being a passive consumer to an active participant in the service they received. The results exceeded all our expectations. Our customers now use around 16% less water than at the start of the programme. This means that more precious water remains in the environment.

The reality is that it’s not just been about the meter, or using water wisely and pricing it fairly. It’s been about increasing resilience – our ability to strengthen our business so we can protect our services from future challenges, such as climate change and population growth. Metering has been the catalyst for starting a different conversation with our customers and has given us a platform for involving them in our long-term plans.

Our programme came before the big shift towards customer engagement that came with the PR14 price review. But for us, it was an important part of that journey and demonstrated just how much can be achieved when you involve customers in your plans and give them a chance to think about the future.

Penny Hodge
Head of Policy and Stakeholder Engagement, Southern Water


What has water efficiency ever done for us – and what could it do…?

Between now and September 2018, water companies in England and Wales will be drawing up plans for their investments between 2020 to 2025. Companies are required to produce these plans for the Periodic Review 2019 (PR19), and we believe nature should be at the heart of these plans.

These PR19 plans are crucial to deliver for both customers and the environment. Blueprint has a number of priorities for these plans, one of which is water efficiency.

Why should we waste less water?

It’s officially been a dry winter in parts of England, and some water companies are looking particularly closely at their recharge possibilities for the summer. The impacts of drought on the economy, people and the environment are severe – and last year’s Water UK report set out that future droughts will be more severe, and will impact all parts of the country.

Wasting less water clearly has a huge role to play in tackling this. The less water we waste, the more there is to go round – and there are more of us using it all the time, and using it in different ways, too. Water companies are doing great work with their customers on water efficiency – including offering them visits to make their toilets and showers more water-efficient, as well as advice on how to waste less, and in some cases linking this to frequent smart meter readings to their phones. But, these programmes are still a drop in the ocean in terms of overall water company investment in England and Wales.

Does water efficiency actually help customers and the environment?

Customers are expecting a better service from their water companies now. Lots of us live our lives through apps these days, and we also expect a tailored service, building on what we ask for and what the companies we use regularly know about us. However, Ofwat has said that too many water customers are receiving an analogue service in a digital age.

Customers should be at the heart of the water sector, and engaging with them on water efficiency is a great way for water companies to make this happen. Unlike with energy, when we’re using water, we can see and feel (and drink) it – and it’s this feeling we have around water, and its importance to our own families and communities, that companies should be tapping into.

We also know from companies’ own research that customers care about the environment in its own right – and not just for the water and wastewater services it provides them. So water companies across England should be working with all their customers on water efficiency, now and in the future, and not just during drought. It doesn’t just help with resilience, it also helps with other things customer care about – the environment, and better customer service.

What do we want? More water efficiency! When do we want it? Now!

The Blueprint for Water coalition is challenging water companies to increase their ambition on water efficiency – building on their great work to date. We’re asking them to:

  • significantly scale up their demand management programmes – this means water efficiency, leakage and metering
  • increase the overall metering of households, as well as the proportion of smart meters
  • ensure a ‘water neutral PR19’ – with no overall increase in the amount of water abstracted from rivers and groundwater, despite population growth and climate change
  • set out ambitious plans to help customers and communities reduce use at ‘peak’ times and in catchments most at risk from abstraction
  • increase the availability, promotion and take-up of tariffs and retrofit programmes (sending trained staff in to make bathrooms and kitchens more water efficient) – different ways of paying for what we use, including to waste less water and protect customers struggling to pay.

Perfect opportunity for water efficiency to improve resilience and customer service

The step change set out by Blueprint would directly contribute to Ofwat’s four themes for the 2019 price review – resilience, customer service, innovation and affordability. And the UK Government has made it clear, through their draft Strategic Policy Statement for Ofwat, that they want to see more water efficiency and better customer service.

We know the industry is taking resilience seriously. Blueprint is asking them to significantly step up their ambition on water efficiency to help them to drive increased resilience – and an improved relationship with their customers. We’re also asking their customer challenge groups to report to Ofwat on how they’ve done this, and for company Boards to actively report against these and the rest of the Blueprint manifesto for PR19 in business plans. As Cathryn Ross, Ofwat Chief Executive has said – water efficiency is a key strategic issue, not a dry supply-demand one, and should be on every water company Board agenda.

Nicci Russell
Managing Director, Waterwise