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Public consulted on future of England’s water supply

Public consultations on the future of the England’s water supply have been launched across the country, as officials outlined regional plans to meet an expected surge in future demand.

Five water resource groups from across England, made up of suppliers, environmental groups, the Environment Agency and other regional stakeholders, said factors including the climate emergency, population growth and increased urbanisation were putting unprecedented pressures on the environment and supply of water.

Estimates suggest that more than 4 billion additional litres of water will be needed per day by 2050 to meet increased demand and improve the environment – equivalent to 1,600 Olympic swimming pools.

But Water Resources East, Water Resources South-East, Water Resources West Country, Water Resources West and Water Resources North hope to save more than 2bn litres of water and protect chalk streams and other sensitive ecosystems, using regional plans to halve leakage by 2050 - combined with reduced household consumption.

Their plans also outline a series of new measures, including new reservoirs in Hampshire, West Sussex, Oxfordshire and South Lincolnshire, along with the ‘Future Fens’ project in the East of England, an integrated multi-benefit water management strategy in the Fens.

Proposals also include catchment and nature-based projects involving water companies and local environmental groups, water recycling schemes in West and East Sussex, Hampshire, London and Kent, and strategic transfers between Water Resources West and the South-East.

Christine McGourty, Water UK chief executive, said: “The future of our water supplies is foremost in the minds of water companies. Working with partners, they have set out ambitious plans to ensure we can meet the challenges of the coming decades and safeguard our water resources for future generations.

“We want as many people as possible to give their views to the consultation in their region. There is no doubting the scale of this challenge and we all have a role to play,” she added.

Robbie Owen, an infrastructure planning partner at Pinsent Masons, said: “The significance of these proposed regional plans and what will come out of them really can’t be overstated. They and the five regional water resources groups behind them follow on from the Environment Agency’s 2020 National Framework for Water Resources, and the National Infrastructure Commission’s formative report in 2018 on preparing for a drier future.”

“The regional plans, and the collaboration between water companies and regulators that they represent, are a vitally important step towards achieving long term resilience of England’s water supply in the face of increased drought risk and growing demand,” Owen added.

“For the first time, such a regionally coordinated approach will form the backbone of individual water companies’ statutory water resource management plans (WRMPs) for the five years from 2024, which will be coming forward for consultation in autumn 2022. Whilst much of the predicted increase in demand is planned to be met by reducing leakage and usage, the regional plans and therefore the WRMPs will also be proposing significant new infrastructure - in the South East alone some £15bn to £17bn across all of the water companies in that regional plan’s 15 year period to 2040,” he said.

“The new infrastructure is mainly comprised in 19 strategic regional water resource options, known as SROs, which are subject to a special funding regime run by the regulator Ofwat and are a mix of new and enlarged reservoirs, water recycling and desalination plants, and water transfer infrastructure between and within regions,” he said.

“The challenges for the water companies bringing forward the SROs for approval and all the way to commissioning will be considerable. Precious little water resources infrastructure on the scale now being contemplated has been built since the 1980s, and so the skills and capacity of water companies, stakeholders, regulators and government will need to be a big focus,” Owen added.

He said: “The infrastructure will need to be highly adaptable and resilient to the wide range of future scenarios, in part by being complementary to and able to work in combination with other proposals. A new consenting regime will apply to most of the SROs. The industry will also need to embrace challenges affecting the infrastructure sector more widely - particularly carbon impact, so requiring a low or zero carbon approach, rapidly changing technologies, and biodiversity and other natural capital risks and opportunities. The next five years will certainly be a very intensive period as these challenges are each addressed and overcome.”

Fiona Ross, an expert in environmental law at Pinsent Masons, added: “The regional planning process includes new requirements to set an ‘environmental destination’ and short, medium and long-term milestones for getting to that ‘destination’. In this context the term ‘environmental destination’ means realising environmental benefits or improvements through sustainable abstraction, taking into account climate change impacts and future demand. The requirement also applies to water companies’ individual water resources management plans. The Environment Agency has published specific guidance on this new requirement, and developing appropriate environmental destinations and milestones that are consistent at both a regional and more local water company level will be a challenge for the sector.”

The five consultations are open until 14 March, when the responses will be used to draft regional plans that are expected to be published for further consultation later in 2022.

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