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Letters: Water shortages need imaginative solutions


Drought: Is water transfer the best solution for the UK?

Mark Hansford has drawn readers’ attention to California governor Jerry Brown’s plans for a “north to south” water transfer system. California already has two major transfer systems that were built in the last century and which do exactly that - the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. The latest plans are to increase the volume from the North and at the same time carry out habitat restoration in the Bay area Delta. The editor asks if “we, as engineers” support the plan and if it is indeed the key to solving California’s water woes. He also ponders if such a transfer would be a solution to the dry South East of England.

The ICE looked at this in 2012 with the State of Nation Water report, at a time when we were in a serious drought. The view then was that long distance transfer (be it from Scotland, Kielder, or Lake District) was unlikely to be economical in comparison to combinations of storage, reuse and demand management in the South East. It is reported that, for London, Thames Water is looking at options of storage, treated wastewater indirect re-use, andtransfer from the Severn basin.

But Great Britain isn’t California. Those huge transfer projects built in the last century deliver far more water for agriculture than for drinking and were visionary in that respect. In the UK, maybe we could be visionary with new plans to support our farmers and in doing so grow more of our own food? The ICE’s State of Nation called for a national water strategy that would address all our water needs well into this century. I wonder if “we, as engineers” could rise to Mark Hansford’s challenge and devise a strategy that sought to use all our available water imaginatively and beneficially?

  • Michael Norton,

Mark Hansford referred to the transfer of water into the South East from areas where it is more plentiful, a need which has been evident for many years (NCE 4 June). A century and a half ago the optimum answer to London’s needs was for storage in north and central Wales plus a 400km long aqueduct (not a tunnel ) to the metropolis. However, since then it has become acceptable to abstract, store and treat water for public supply from the lower courses of rivers, notably the Thames where extensive pumped storage has already been provided.

In the 1960s it was demonstrated that conversion of upland direct supply reservoirs to river regulation could greatly enhance their output by marrying their storage to a much larger catchment area and could achieve economies by transfer in rivers in lieu of long aqueducts. For London, that meant transfer via the Severn and the Thames. Subsequent studies identified a number of problems but also the means of coping with them. New storage when needed can be provided in the Severn basin in England.

These proposals have been virtually ignored, and in recent years there have been several proposals for transfer to the South East through aqueducts or canals from the north of England or Scotland. Such transfers would waste the funds of water customers on an even greater scale than new storage in the Thames basin which the already over-exploited Thames would be required to fill. The poor economic performance of the proposed reservoir near Abingdon was amply demonstrated in the evidence submitted to the public inquiry a few years ago.

  • Barry Rydz (F), 6 Kingsdown House, Corsham SN13 8AX

Please may I congratulate you on your creative editorial of 4 June. I hope you continue to point the way forward.
Long distance water transfer for the UK seems to be a political problem too. If the Romans built tunnels and aqueducts to transfer water by gravity it seems this may be the best way forward. But is it beyond Thames Water’s catchment?

  • Harry Teather (M),

California, south east England or wherever the sun shines more than it rains will always be a problem for water engineers. I have followed the British thoughts over the years when long distance transfer from the water-rich areas to those suffering shortages has been mooted. In general I am against long distance transfers. The basis of this is my experience here on the Isle of Wight. The Island is often considered a microcosm of England and as such I believe the system we have is one to emulate across the country.

The water supplies to Island towns, developed by the Victorians, were on a parochial basis. Even the Isle of Wight Water Board continued the theme until in the 1960s it linked Newport and Cowes (8km apart) with trunk mains. In Southern Water Authority days, with many hosepipe bans and greater demand, improved supplies were essential. Even in 1976, the drought year, Ryde, Sandown, Ventnor and Shanklin were essentially self-contained in their supply of what little water they had. The mid-1970s review of resources established that a connection with the River Test near Southampton would not only be speedier in execution but better than searching for a suitable catchment reservoir site. Once the water was on the Island, treated and into supply, new service reservoirs and trunk mains were constructed to give all areas of the Island a reliable supply 24/7.

When mid-Sussex was in need of more water, an agreement was made between Southern Water and Portsmouth Water for raw water from a Portsmouth source to be pumped to a Southern Water treatment works. If such assistance can be given on a cross-border basis then, I suggest, similar inter-company transfers can enable the drier areas to gain from those with more resources to spare. Water quality matters, infrastructure costs (pipelines, pumping stations and energy as well as environmental considerations) and unnecessary disturbance are topics which can be avoided if neighbouring catchments can assist each other whenever shortages crop up.

A system of cascading water from west to east would be possible and would overcome the long distance transfers.

I think water engineers and their employers should consider the system I propose and work for the benefit of all.

  • Fred Caws (M retd),

Is HS2 solving the wrong problem?

David Higgins rightly identifies the problems of connectivity and capacity within the rail system. Sadly, he fails to demonstrate how High Speed 2 (HS2) will solve them. Most of the stations on the route are outside major conurbations, hardly providing the greater connectivity needed. Time saved by faster rail links will be lost in the increased time taken to access these stations.

The French TGV provides direct connectivity into city centres by using short sections of existing upgraded lines or new tunnelled connections to existing stations from the dedicated lines between cities. The extra cost to HS2 of adopting this approach might make the scheme unviable but anything less is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

If the issue is capacity, then a better solution might be a new dedicated freight system linking the major container ports with the industrial heartlands, freeing up capacity on existing lines and reducing the number of heavy goods vehicles on the roads. It would even be an advantage if the freight depots were on the outskirts of major conurbations!

The problem with HS2 is that it was originally intended as a high speed extension to High Speed 1, giving businesses in the Midlands and the North direct fast rail access to Europe, which will no longer happen. Later the same scheme became the solution for a capacity problem on the West Coast Main Line. Whatever the question, HS2 always appears to be the answer. Can this be right?

  • Stephen Hague (M),

Do we need HS2 or an IT upgrade?

High Speed 2 Ltd chairman David Higgins’ reasoning in support of his project, was very weak (NCE 11 June).

The crux of High Speed 2 Ltd David Higgins’ justification for the project lies in the paragraph “because in a knowledge economy what matters is face time”. How can this be justification for a spend of (an estimated) £42.6bn on a project that, at best, won’t be available for up to 30 years from now? I agree that sometimes it is better to meet face-to-face with another, but in this age of globalisation, this will not always be practical or possible.

Surely, a better and more practical solution, for a fraction of this cost, could (should) be further improving IT links, thus making national communication more attractive, visible, accessible, usable, secure and fast. This would also help reduce the carbon footprint.

  • Graeme Burns (AM),

Stale males can help women too

I was disappointed to see the Editor condoning the application of that derogatory stereotype of “pale, male and stale” to the industry (NCE 11 June). I agree with Natasha Watson that equality is not just about women, but equality is not furthered by demeaning male engineers who have worked all their career in the field - some of whom have done a lot to promote the progression of women and other minorities.

I believe that the key to getting more women and minorities into civil engineering - and the UK science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce in general - is working co-operatively to overcome the barriers to progression (physical, cultural and attitudinal), not writing off certain types of people because of their age, gender and skin colour. Watson will presumably benefit from work done on equality by those “pale, male and stale” types who entered the profession before her.

There are now many initiatives to help promote under-represented groups that she and her young colleagues can get involved with in civil engineering and other STEM-based professions - but please, let’s ditch the unhelpful clichés!

  • Sally Cantello,


Stay up to date

It was interesting to read the article about the calls for greater public and private transport in Manchester, as recent articles often focus on London, reflecting the skewed nature of our construction economy of late (NCE 4 June). I was very disappointed with the image you chose to accompany the article however. The Metrolink tram network went through significant re-branding over five years ago, and the photo used looks to be at least 10 years old, if not older. Anyone who has been in the city centre over the last two years will know that the second city tram crossing is currently threading its way through the city, with the latest stage of major construction due to occur this summer at the very station pictured. Using out of date images in this way reinforces the feeling that the NCE is out of touch with the industry outside of the south east.

  • Kathleen Harrison (M),

Editor’s note: Apologies Kathleen, we will update our image library with some more contemporary infrastructure projects

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