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.
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.
Successive droughts and floods over the last 10 – 15 years has sharpened minds across sectors on how we address potential in balances of water supply geographically in the UK where broadly speaking there is excess water available in the North and forecasted shortfalls in the South. Various ideas have been put forward to move water around the country from a national water grid to individual schemes from Water Companies to supply neighbours who forecast drought scenarios.
There are already water transfer schemes across the country the most notable is Severn Trent Water who collect water in Wales and pipe to Birmingham for consumption and then release into the river Tame via Sewage Treatment Works to the river Tame and then into the Trent system. Other ideas that have been floated including moving water from the Severn to the Thames via pipes and the canal system.
I felt a little underwhelmed after reading the Government’s ‘National Flood Resilience Review’, which was published on Thursday. National flood resilience is complicated and must consider not only how well communities are able to cope with extreme rainfall events but how quickly life can return to normal afterwards, what the impact is on businesses and whether the most vulnerable people receive the support they need.
Our nation cannot be truly resilient unless the environment is also able to cope, both with the impacts of flooding and the engineering we employ to manage it. There’s no inherent conflict there, the natural environment is one of the greatest assets we have in managing flood risk, but it does require a bit of careful planning.
Water companies protect public health by providing the very best water and sanitation services – and it is now much easier for you to track their progress and performance.
The water sector has just launched Discover Water – an online dashboard where you can see how companies are performing across a range of metrics, for example results of the Environment Agency’s annual Environmental Protection Assessments, or bathing water quality results.
At this stage, you’ll just see industry totals or averages. But we intend to launch the second phase in December, which will have company by company data.
The water environment and everything it means for us needs to be protected in an era of change post the EU referendum results. Our wetland wildlife, our drinking water, our enjoyment of walking by a river full of life, and the food and farming industries all rely on a healthy water environment.
This is in no way secure. Our major legislation supporting clean water is driven by being a member of the European Union, from the Water Framework Directive and the Urban Waste Water Directive to the Common Agricultural Policy which supports good land management. We need to ensure that the Government does not weaken the protections that give us clean water and that the amount of water we take from the environment is sustainable. This will not be easy. There are so many demands on our water environment from the energy industry, agriculture, not to mention climate change and population growth; the health of our waters is bound to be more vulnerable as everyone clamours to be heard. We need to be the voice for water, for nature.