Can local solutions offer immediate action and a more sustainable future?
The possibility of a national water grid, similar to the gas and electricity grids, has been raised on a number of occasions. When water resources become stretched, the idea is often raised in the media and in engineering circles. Although it is technically feasible to build such a grid in engineering terms, Water UK suggests that on economic and environmental grounds, such an option would need thorough evaluation.
Although a purpose-built national grid seems unlikely to happen, what is already taking place extensively, and will become more common, is the transfer of water within company areas and across local boundaries. This approach has the benefit of utilising the existing infrastructure (possibly with some local reinforcement) to help meet future demand.
Unlike gas and electricity, water is heavy. Indeed, the average family of four uses water weighing about two-thirds of a tonne each day. Transporting it over large distances would require major engineering investment and pumping operations that would consume large amounts of expensive energy. If this were approached as part of the existing water infrastructure price-setting process, the costs would fall directly on to customers’ bills.
Governments would need to feel confident that such expenditure would complement their infrastructure resilience strategy. Customers would need to be convinced that such investment was value for money, and would deliver their priorities in the most sustainable way.
With the widely recorded changes in recent weather patterns, and ongoing winters where the rainfall fails to replenish resources, it is difficult to predict exactly where pipelines should go and where further water stress will occur. Last year, for example, the typically water resource safe north west was affected by water shortages. This year it has been mostly the south and eastern areas.
Highly expensive pipelines and pumps built to take water to one location are not easily reversed if water is then needed to go back the opposite way. Building large pipelines to draw water away from areas that then find themselves water stressed could leave billions of pounds of assets unused. The best solution, at least for the short to medium term, is to use the available infrastructure to move the water within local operational areas and to neighbouring water companies.
Water companies continue to consult with their customers to try to make sure that their long-term investment and water resources plans do reflect what people value and wish to pay for. Maintaining a constant and safe water supply is a customer priority, and companies will keep augmenting their approach to ensure that this priority is met.
It is true that some parts of the country have more available water than others, but we continue to see that nowhere is immune from drought. Some parts of Wales and the Midlands have previously seen below-average levels and it was not that long ago that serious water shortage and hosepipe bans came to Dundee. Given the uncertainty of the weather, and the need to maintain local water resources for local communities, it would be wrong to assume that any area has 'excess' water.
Transferring large volumes of water away from an area also has the potential to cause big changes in the local ecology, changes that many would see as damaging to flora and fauna. Close working with environmental experts has shown that it is far better to work with nature, confining bulk movements of water within individual river catchments wherever possible.
The fact is that river catchments all have their own characteristics. The ecosystems and habitats that can be supported by water from the Scottish Highlands or Lancashire moors are not likely to be readily compatible with those that exist on the chalk downlands of Kent and Sussex.
Transferring large volumes of water into an area could also pose problems for the local ecology. As is well known, the chemical composition of water varies in different parts of the country, and the potential effect on habitats and species would be significant.
The effect on the environment of construction and engineering work associated with the development of national water pipelines would be significant.
A more sustainable solution
While governments carefully consider how water policy must be adjusted to face the challenges of changing weather patterns, environmental conditions and social needs, water companies already move water extensively within regions and river catchments to keep the water flowing. This approach makes the best use of assets that are already built, and provides a fast response.
In recent years companies have invested customers’ money heavily in building better connections between their own supply zones. They have also worked in cooperation with neighbouring companies where cross-boundary connections provide the most cost-effective way to secure supplies for all.
Water companies also work closely together with the environmental regulators in planning long-term enhancement of supplies. For example, plans to construct new, or raise existing, reservoirs are made in the light of the regional picture even though one company will take the lead in developing the project.
Customers have played a vital role too, responding strongly to requests for the wisest possible use of water, and actively seeking tips and suggestions to do even more. Local communities have proved to be very willing to participate in making the best use of local water supplies and to do their bit.
Water UK believes that through a combination of medium- and long-term measures, adequate water resources can be available to meet society's needs within environmental limits. By reducing demand and enhancing supply within regions – what is known as a ‘twin-track’ approach – we have the building blocks for a sustainable strategy.
Discussions can then take place about the environmental merits and financial affordability of a national water grid.