Prioritising the identification, protection and restoration of Natural Infrastructure provides a significant opportunity to realise the Government’s ambition of us being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than which we found it.
In every parliament, the National Infrastructure Commission sets out their views about our long-term infrastructure needs in a National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA). Looking over a 30-year time horizon, they consider the demand and supply of infrastructure services and assets, such as roads or fibre optic cables, and make recommendations to government on how these needs are best met.
They consider major sectors including transport, energy, water & wastewater, and flood risk management – areas where projects could impact significantly upon the environment. What they don’t tend to consider is whether these sectors could in fact benefit from the services that our countryside and green spaces provide.
Successive agri-environment schemes have tended to place a relatively low emphasis on farmland ponds, but have we been ignoring one of the most important farmland habitats? In recent years, the UCL Pond Restoration Research Group has been studying the decline of ponds and in turn, how they can be best managed to benefit wildlife in UK farmland.
Before the Second World War parts of the UK were pond heaven! Cheshire, Lancashire, Norfolk, Suffolk and many other areas were pock-marked with ponds, often with 4-5 present in just one field. Ponds were used for watering livestock, cooling farm machinery and even as a supply of organic matter to the fields. Moreover, they were an important part of local culture, much loved by local people.
Thanks to Brexit, the question of Parliamentary sovereignty is much in mind: when can the Executive act without the consent of Parliament? The Supreme Court’s judgement that a Parliamentary vote is needed to trigger Article 50 is a check on executive power.
Behind the furore of Brexit, though, another balancing act has been taking place between Whitehall and Westminster that is having a real effect on people’s lives.
While the winter we are currently experiencing has been relatively dry, none of us will soon forget the catastrophic weather that hit Britain just twelve months ago. A relentless series of storms battered the UK throughout December 2015, causing unprecedented rainfall in many areas and resulting in widespread flooding and massive damage to infrastructure, homes and businesses in affected regions, particularly the northeast of England.
Hard-engineering structures remain the go-to approach for managing flood risk, while dredging often rears its ugly head as an immediate response to severe flooding events. Dredging is a highly destructive activity for fish populations and as an angling organisation the Angling Trust feels very strongly that it has no place in modern flood risk management (see the Blueprint Dredging Up Trouble report). However, the situation is gradually changing – is there now a more natural and cost-effective long-term solution? Natural Flood Risk Management (NFM) is an in-vogue expression used by government departments, local authorities and conservation NGOs alike, but what does it actually mean?
In November 2016, I wrote a blog about the EFRA Committee’s Report on Future Flood Prevention. On balance, the report was a useful contribution to the national debate about how we best prepare for floods. We have now seen the Government’s response to the report and it tells us little we didn’t already know.
There is a reassuring commitment to a catchment-based approach and recognition that tackling flood risk should not be considered in isolation from other environmental challenges such as improving water quality, recovering wildlife and sequestering carbon. This does not take away from the importance of natural flood management; rather it enables us to build the case for investment by factoring in a full range of benefits. The end result is that schemes to slow the flow and make space for water would be rolled out much more widely, benefitting communities where investment for the flood risk reduction alone may not have stacked up.
Water companies protect both the environment and the public by providing high quality water and sanitation services – and it is now much easier to track and compare their performance.
The water sector has launched comparative data on Discover Water – an online dashboard where you can see how companies across England and Wales are performing across a range of metrics, including the Environment Agency’s annual Environmental Protection Assessments and bathing water quality results.
Over the next 12-15 months water companies in England and Wales will be drawing up plans as part of PR19 (Periodic Review 2019) for their investments between 2020 to 2025. In the blog below, Nathan Richardson sets out why it is important to influence the content of these plans so that they deliver for nature.
Why are we engaging with water companies?
The water companies in England and Wales have invested £130 billion in environmental management over the last 25 years with a further £42 billion to be spent by 2020. Alongside the provision of safe drinking water, this investment has delivered significant improvements in river and bathing water quality and is helping address the impacts of abstraction on some of most important wildlife sites.
The EFRA Committee report into future flood prevention offers a challenging vision after the damp squib of the Government’s National Flood Resilience Review. It distils a wide range of evidence into a set of pertinent challenges. Headlines will inevitably focus on the proposal to dismantle and rebuild current flood management governance and delivery bodies but the report contains recommendations that have the potential to make a lasting impact on how we approach flood risk management in England.
Facilitating a whole catchment approach
The Committee recognises that we need an approach to catchment management that considers how to reduce flood risk alongside providing a resilient supply of clean water and a healthy environment. The risk is that, by removing the flood management function from the Environment Agency and the Lead Local Flood Authority role from county and unitary authorities, you take responsibility from bodies with a broad remit to consider a full range of environmental services to create new structures with a much narrower remit. How will this help us to achieve a joined up approach to catchment management that delivers the best outcomes for society in the most cost effective way?
Triggered by increasing concerns over the resilience of our water supply system to future drought the Water Resources Long-term Planning Framework was published by Water UK in September 2016. It highlights how resilience to drought is diminishing due to climate change, population growth and the need to address unsustainable abstraction.
Shortfalls in the order of more than 800Ml/d are predicted in the South-East by 2040 under even relatively moderate future scenarios (see Figure 1). To put this in context, this shortfall is equivalent to the daily water consumption of around 5 million people with the economic cost of a single day of lost supply across England and Wales estimated at £1.3 billion. In response the report puts forward potential solutions involving a mix of more demand management, new and bigger reservoirs, effluent reuse and water transfers (see Figure 2).
So what are the top issues emerging from this groundbreaking study?
1. Recognising the problem – and acting on it
We are facing an increasing risk of drought which will impact on the natural environment. The recent State of Nature (2016) report found 13% of our freshwater species are already at risk of extinction with hydrological change identified as the 5th largest driver for change across all species assessed. More frequent and more severe droughts, as predicted by the study, will only exacerbate this threat to nature. Government, regulators, water companies and the environmental sector need to ensure that the response is not to just take more and more water from the natural environment.
Figure 1 Potential deficits by 2040 and 2065 under the portfolios:
2. Demand management – doing more
It is clear from the report that water companies need to raise their game on demand management and that they need to do it sooner rather than later. Demand management can be a win : win as not only does it improve resilience to drought it also reduces the amount of water we need to abstract from the environment at all times.
We will be promoting greater action on demand management in the current round of Water Resource Management Planning and company business planning for 2020-2025 (PR19). This means water companies going further and faster than currently planned with leakage reduction and metering; developing and using smart tariffs and incentives to encourage less water use and retrofitting water efficiency measures to existing homes. It also means joining us in calling for planning policies and building regulations that lead to far greater water efficiency being built into new properties, particularly in vulnerable areas.
3. New supply side solutions – difficult choices ahead
Even with enhanced demand management, new supply side solutions such as water transfers between regions and new and bigger reservoirs are predicted to be needed by 2040. They will have environmental impacts both positive and negative. Unfortunately the report does not go into any detail on these impacts being primarily a hydrological and economic analysis. This is a major gap that needs to be addressed at a comparable national scale.
We do not yet have the information necessary to evaluate options such as new in-catchment storage, water transfers and desalination. What we need to see is thorough environmental assessment of alternative strategic options at national, regional and company scales and evidence that environmental considerations are being properly factored into the options analysis and decision making processes.
Figure 2 Potential strategic solutions put forward in the study:
4. WFD no-deterioration risk – a hidden issue
The report exposes the potential scale of a hitherto relatively unknown issue around currently unused “paper” water that companies have on their licenses and have been relying on in their calculations of deployable output (i.e. how much water they can put into supply). If the use of this paper water could result in deterioration in Water Framework Directive (WFD) status then all or some of it will need to be removed due to the WFD “no-deterioration” principle. This poses a major issue which could amount to several 100Ml/d across companies in water scarce areas such as Severn Trent, Thames, Southern and Anglian.
This ”paper” water has not yet been used so assessing the risk of deterioration is technically very challenging. We may well see the regulators and companies looking for a way forward, for example linking its use to enhanced monitoring with claw back if impacts emerge. However, in all water bodies that companies rely on for abstraction there is a great opportunity for the environmental sector and companies to work together to increase their natural resilience to low flows and to abstraction through techniques such as river restoration and habitat enhancement. As the report makes clear “a resilient natural environment forms the basis for sustainable water supplies”.
We should welcome this ground breaking report. It provides a wake-up call, bringing to our attention the increasing water supply risks we face in the future. It makes a useful contribution to the discussion around the ways we can address those risks and ensure a resilient future. However, the lack of any substantive consideration of the environmental impact of future droughts, or of the positive and negative impacts of potential solutions, is a significant gap which needs to be addressed at national, regional and company scales.
Few of us think about what happens after we flush the loo or pull the plug in the sink or bath, and yet the sewerage system is essential to the nation’s physical and economic health. Billions of pounds have been invested in ensuring that this water is taken away, cleaned and returned to the environment to support our unique and irreplaceable ecosystems and wildlife – although there is still much to do.
Moreover, a changing climate, growth in population and other changes to our society mean that we are going to have to start thinking differently about how we ensure our sewerage network is efficient, affordable and supports the environment and the economy in the decades to come.