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Drought pipeline proposal for HS2 route

Water company United Utilities has raised the prospect of transferring water from the north of the UK to the drought-hit south by suggesting a pipeline could be built alongside the route of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway line.

“The current drought emphasises what we have known for some time - that there is more water available in the north than the south,” said United Utilities chief financial officer Russ Houlden. “A north-south pipeline could be built to address that.

“Typically the objections to such an idea have been build cost, operational cost, planning difficulties and environmental impact,” he added.

£2.6bn pipeline

The company has estimated it would cost £2.6bn to build a pipeline to shadow the full route of the high speed rail route between London and the north of England.

However, ICE water panel chair Michael Norton said the estimate sounds low, and also pointed out that the operational costs for such a scheme would be very high.

“The energy cost to pump that distance would be astronomical,” he said. “People try to compare moving water with moving electricity or gas, but water is a heavy, incompressible liquid. Friction and head loss have to be overcome with pumps.”

Houlden said that, as the pipeline would only be used as an insurance policy in times of water shortage, the operational cost should be “manageable”.

Readers' comments (8)

  • The need to pump water should be looked at very closely. Many early water transfer schemes worked with gravity flow, with the Elan valley scheme to Birmingham falling only 52m in 118 km prior to arriving at Frankley SW of Birmingham at an altitude of approximately 180m. What is the cost of construction of a large bore non pressurised gravity system compared to the cost of a small bore pressurised system. The running cost of the gravity system must be less.

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  • The issue should be considered in the context of the potential impact upon the economy should the SE region be regularly affected by drought conditions.

    How would regular drought conditions impact upon productivity in the SE and consequently the regional/national economy.

    Looking at the issue in a holistic manner, would the project costs for a sustainable water lifeline running from the north to the south then appear to be acceptable?

    With the recent address from HRH Prince Charles touching upon the issue of ICE charter; what legacy would such a pipeline leave for future generations? Would this project help or hinder the cause of changing our attitude to water, finally appreciating it as a highly valuable resource.

    The costs of such a project are large; for the pipeline and its operation, but so are the costs of inaction.

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  • As Micheal Norton has pointed out the cost estimate for the proposals seems to low for the scale of works which would be required - I suspect that it would also complicate the construction of the HS2, increasing the cost further.

    The government should instigate a national water supply strategy, which will look all options including increasing storage, measures to reduce per capita consumption, as well as transfer options, and combinations of them. This should also consider the amount of water consumed by agriculture and electricity generation.

    United Utilities will have done something positive if they mange to spark a debate which leads to a properly considered proposal.

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  • I was involved with the Wasia Scheme in Saudi and more particularly I spent time exploring the Jubail Scheme being buit on the other side of the road. This brings 8cumec of distilled water to Riyadh rising from sea level to the high point of 700m over 450km. This required 7 pumping satations, 6 high pressure and 1 low pressure to provide the suction pressure for the first high pressure station.

    It could supply 4 cumec using alternate high pressure pumping stations at half flow. Thus the friction head was considerable in spite of the size of twin 2.2m dia.

    I mentioned this because this pipeline would be similar in scale and similar economies could be achieved by half flow although operation costs would be considerable.

    You'd also require additional reservoirs. I presume that these would be in Wales which would mean that much of the pipeline would not be alongside the railway. Further the water would need to be distributed at the southern end. Bewl reservoir is now only 43% full. Looking at it I wonder what it would look like if it ever reached 20% full. Would the water reach there or merely be fed to Burham WTW among others.

    The concept of using the HS2 corridor makes some sense but it would double the land take and there would be many other problems to such a project.


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  • It might be possible to minimize pumping costs by connecting to storage reservoirs at intervals to allow pumping to take place at off peak periods and times of high wind generation.
    Peter Ravine

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  • They could try building Thames Water's proposed storage reservoir near Abingdon. There's plenty of water in the South-East. It's just not there at the right time (ie in droughts). The last cost I heard for that was £1bn (a snip compared with the HS2 pipeline)

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  • Barry Walton

    I am not sure what Michael means by the cost would be very high. High compared to what? The cost to the economy of drought? The cost compared to desal? The cost compared to the intelligent metering dream with its 125 l/h/d and zeroing the system losses? The cost compared to what we spend on bringing oil and gas from remote parts of the world? I suppose, at least we might now be addressing this as a resource capture problem for which some moderately big thinking is required. Might we even show stored water as an asset on a company's balance sheet? At the last look it had no value.

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  • Politics and Engineering will always be at loggerheads with one another where there is no clear consensus as to the value of a project. The value of providing a water network, or just a North South link, will vary depending on who the promoter is behind the valuation. How do you value [prevention of] drought? My position is that the baseline should be the cost of desalination on the proviso that in a first World country like the UK it is a right for any household to have the availability of water running out of a tap, metered or not. I am not promoting desalination but using it as a baseline on the assumption (right or wrong) that there will always be a sea from which to draw water for treatment.

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