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Delivery dilemma

Water and drainage - Plans to develop new water resources are on the drawing board, but do we really need them? Bernadette Redfern investigates.

Recent TV, radio and newspaper headlines have given the impression that the UK is gripped by a water crisis.

The driest 18 months on record have forced water companies to implement emergency drought plans. These enable them to increase abstraction from existing resources, tap into new ones and enforce demand management measures like hose pipe bans.

But according to the ICE the picture is not as bad as that painted - for the moment.

'It is not actually that dry. We manage our resources OK, ' says ICE Water Board chairman John Lawson.

'I think water companies have talked it up, but things are not that bad. However we are in danger of having a bad summer. Reservoirs may be relatively full at the moment but groundwater supplies are less healthy'.

The water companies claim that we need new water resources and want eight new reservoirs built or existing ones enlarged to meet growing demand, over the next 25 years.

'There is huge growth forecast for the south east, ' says Water UK policy advisor Phil Mills. This will stress already stretched supplies still further. He says, however, that 'provided new development is built into water resource plans, there is no reason why water should limit development.

Desalinating water from the Thames has been considered, although plans to build a plant in Beckton East London have run into planning problems.

'Desalination is an option, and Thames is a special case. The water is brackish, requiring less treatment [than seawater] and the proposed plant would be powered by renewable energy, so the scheme is partially self powered.

It is unusual for this country but it is an option we have to consider, ' says Mills.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone recently vetoed the scheme, refusing to give planning permission, on the grounds that it would be unsustainable (NCE 21 April 2005).

The Environment Agency is ultimately in charge of water resources and is sceptical whether new reservoirs and desalination plants are the answer.

'We are pushing companies very hard to manage demand.

Development of a reservoir scheme could take 12 to 15 years, only for a planning inquiry to say we don't need it. We are pushing companies to recognise that we can't pursue a single track approach, ' says Environment Agency head of water resources Ian Barker.

'We are looking at all of the water company proposals and are considering what is the optimal solution. We will publish a decision later on as to how that should work, ' Barker says.

The Agency will publish an interim discussion paper later this year - 'a think piece to get the debate going'.

The ICE wants to take part in that discussion. 'We certainly do need new resources but we don't need them all, ' says Lawson. 'The new resources situation needs to be re-looked at and government needs to give it a push as the way forward, ' he says.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that construction of a national water grid is prohibitively expensive.

But Lawson says there are other possibilities for moving water around.

'Probably the most cost effective method would be to expand Craig Goch reservior in mid-Wales.

'Water could then be transferred to the south east using the rivers Severn and Wye. It nearly got built in the 1970s, ' he says.

But this scheme is not currently being considered. 'It hasn't been put forward as an option, ' says Ofwat head of capital maintenance George Day. 'But as a big potential scheme we would expect the Agency to keep it under review, ' he says.

The ICE and the Environment Agency agree that metering customers is the best way to reduce water demand and the only way to encourage domestic consumers to use less water.

'Demand management is very hard as long as people are not metered. We have exceptionally low levels of meter penetration and the problem is that in some cases it would be a problem for families whose bills would increase. But you can get around that if government were to give rebates on a means tested basis.

'Introducing metering has to start with awareness raising, like we see the government doing with nuclear power, ' says Lawson.

Currently water companies can only meter customers if they have applied for scarcity status, which has to be agreed by government.

'Compulsory metering has got to be the right way to go. We would like to see more companies applying for scarcity status, ' says Barker. But although he says that all companies in the south east would have a case for proving to government that they are strapped for resources, the process is seen to be onerous.

'We would like to see the bar lowered so that there are less hoops for companies to jump through, ' he says. Some companies are also reluctant to apply as they see it as a sign of failure.

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