With the Water Framework Directive taking effect this month, droughts forecast for the summer and the water industry about to dive in to the next five year work period, the sector is awash with questions.
Bernadette Redfern investigates.
'This is a great time to be working for an engineering firm servicing the water industry, ' says David Nichols, managing director of consultant Black & Veatch. It's great because there is so much work to be done.
But as water companies enter the fifth and final year of the current five year asset management period (AMP 3), significant and sweeping changes are imminent. Uncertainties for the industry are plenty.
Civils 2004 provides an opportunity to ask questions of those in the industry best placed to provide answers.
Water companies are already putting programmes of work out to tender for AMP 4 which starts in 2005. Industry body Water UK estimates necessary investment at £21bn. Many contractors, consultants and suppliers stand to boost workload, but there will also be losers.
AMP 4 partnerships and consortia are already being formed to tackle projects let under the Early Start programme. This follows regulator Ofwat's request to companies to provide a programme of AMP 4 work that could be started early to avoid the workload dip that has dogged contractors and consultants in year one of every five year cycle.
Water companies are currently agreeing with Ofwat on a start for 1,000 capital programmes worth £1bn as early as this year.
While companies are thankful for an end to the stop-start investment cycle, they are wary of new procurement strategies expected to be rolled out alongside AMP 4.
For engineers, the fear is that water companies will increasingly take on themselves work traditionally let to consultants.
'Water companies are bringing work back in house, ' says Paul Mullord, UK director of British Water. 'They are becoming more expert and carrying out more of the design and planning work themselves, ' agrees Nichols.
Meanwhile, consultants are grappling with the challenges thrown up as they are increasingly charged with planning asset management. Calculating asset life is difficult and, according to Graham Setterfield, chairman of the ICE Water Board, raises a lot of questions among engineers.
'It is not a mechanistic process as there are so many variables, such as differences between materials, he says. 'Companies rely on the experience of their engineers.'
For the industry as a whole, water supply is set to be a pressing issue. Environment Agency chief executive Barbara Young has indicated that construction of new reservoirs might be on the agenda (NCE 11 December), but was quick to add that this in no way reduced pressure on water companies to tackle leakage.
'We have to find a balance between drier summers and wetter winters. It is a double whammy for investment and we need to know how this is being planned for by the government, ' says Steve McGuinness, business development co-ordinator for coasts and rivers at consultant Posford Haskoning.
Much work that water companies and the Environment Agency have to do is driven by legislation, the latest of which is the Water Framework Directive. Its full implications are still unknown, but according to the Environment Agency, the cost of implementation could be as high as £11bn.
Its principal objective is to achieve 'good water status' in rivers and lakes by 2015 through improvements in water quality at river basin level. However a definition for what 'good status' means is still missing and the process of characterising river basins to determine their water quality has yet to be completed.
lNCE is also hosting a conference 'Implementing the Water Framework Directive - practical strategies to prepare you for the new legislation' on 5 February. Go to www. nceplus.co.uk/wfd or call our conferences department on (020) 7505 6044.
Ask the panel
At Civils 2004, NCE will be hosting a Q&A session on water. On 27 April put your questions to a specialist water panel. Email your address to christina. taylor@emap. com to book a place.
Dr Bill Emery director of cost and performance division and chief engineer at OFWAT
David Nichols managing director of Black & Veatch Consulting
Paul Mullord director of British Water lJohn Banyard director of asset management Severn Trent Water lGraham Setterfield chairman of the ICE Water Board