Water dilemma

This morning the seven million people of the north west of England woke to find they run the risk of a £1,000 fine if they wield their hosepipe to water their geraniums. Sprinklers too, for that matter, are also temporarily beyond the pale.

This morning the seven million people of the north west of England woke to find they run the risk of a £1,000 fine if they wield their hosepipe to water their geraniums. Sprinklers too, for that matter, are also temporarily beyond the pale.

The region’s reservoirs are “significantly” lower than they should be following the driest start to a year since 1929. The North West’s water stock is particularly hard hit because the region has fewer natural aquifiers than other parts of England and relies on reservoirs, where evaporation is a problem.

The restriction is – so far – localised, but persistent dry spells through the summer may see other regions become water-stressed too. Although barely enforceable (unless your neighbour snitches on you) the ban will serve to focus attention on how we use our water resources. A hosepipe uses as much water in an hour as a family of four would use in a day. Meanwhile, a sprinkler left running overnight uses as much water as a family of four would use in a week.

The Consumer Council for Water, the quango which represents “the interests of water consumers”, claims that 80 per cent of us are “prepared to accept restrictions such as hosepipe bans – as long as water companies can demonstrate that they have done all they can to effectively manage water supplies”. Alas, making theoretical sacrifices and real ones will depend on who’s shrubbery is wilting.

But the entire industry is struggling to cope with bigger issues. Front of the queue is climate change, which is presenting the industry with the practical problem of coping with wetter winters, hotter, drier summers and more flash flooding. Our current water and wastewater infrastructure is geared towards more conventional weather patterns with steady, moderate rainfall. It is simply not modelled for the abnormal weather we are starting to see with greater frequency.

And there is growing concern that water industry regulation is inadequate to meet these future challenges. A recent conference held by the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) found 87 per cent of delegates supported a “comprehensive review of the financial regulation of water”, arguing that the current framework “can encourage short-term efficiency savings at the potential cost of ensuring that infrastructure is maintained to meet future requirements”.

The economic regulator of the industry, the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) is responsible for setting customer bills and agreeing the network investments that companies can make. It manages this through its Periodic Review of water prices which sets customer bills in five-yearly blocks. Meanwhile, companies are obliged to maintain a 25-year outlook through their water resource management plans.

The current Price Review settlement demands customers’ bills fall by £3 to an average of £340 a year by 2015. Not everyone is happy, with some investors warning that Ofwat’s ‘Robin Hood’ pricing decisions will make water company stocks less attractive, hampering their ability to raise future capital in this investment-intensive industry.

In managing water resources the industry has a huge job trying to convince people to “use water wisely”, and there are real concerns this is a losing battle, especially with the twee and patronising marketing that the industry opts for, which runs headlong into consumers’ own logic.

Some people simply take the view that they are buying a product from a private company and will use as much of it as they please. Despite privatisation taking place two decades ago, the industry still appeals to public sector arguments for customers to ‘do the right thing’ for the common good.

But given the private water companies’ historically dismal record on leakage, many customers simply point out that they should fix their leaking pipes if they want to save water; in United Utilities’ case, it lost a staggering 462 million litres a day last year.

In addition, UU faces the weary prospect of having to explain to its baffled customers why a country that sees so much rain can possibly be short of water. This follows a bruising political battle last year with local charities and scout groups about the imposition of a so-called ‘rain tax’ as the company sought to levy controversial surface water drainage charges based on the footprint of a customer’s premises.

So the industry is faced with a knotty series of problems with big implications for future water management as it grapples with climate change, population growth and the ‘wrong type’ of rain. It will be interesting to see how many Lancashire gardeners are prosecuted for lubricating their hydrangeas. Most will simply do what they always do during drought restrictions. Water their gardens at night.

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