Understanding the Blueprint

The coalition that produced the Blueprint for Water has insisted it is not directly criticising water companies or Ofwat in its ten-point plan of action to solve the country's water crisis. Rather, it is an attempt to look at the 'totality of water management'. Sally Nash reports.

Environmental, wildlife and angling groups which make up the coalition that produced Blueprint for Water - the ten-point plan of action to solve the UK's water crisis - insist they are not directly criticising water companies or Ofwat.

The coalition, which includes the National Trust, has produced a comprehensive programme of action in a bid to secure a healthy water environment for people and wildlife (see box). The blueprint has been designed as a political document, targeted at decision-makers in a bid to shape the UK's water strategy for the next decade.

The blueprint includes the steps needed to slash the amount of water wasted in homes and businesses, while calling for a huge increase in the currently low level of fines for water pollution.

Waterwise, part of the coalition, stresses that the Blueprint does not directly criticise Ofwat or the water industry. Instead, it is an attempt to look at the totality of water management, says a spokesman.

Land management
However, it points out that, even though the water industry has done a lot on leakage, and investment is now starting to deliver, there is still a long way to go to replace the hundreds of thousands of kilometres of Victorian cast-iron pipes.

"Action on issues such as reducing consumption or reducing agricultural contaminants and the burden on the sewer system will make it easier for the water industry and cheaper for the customer.

"We need to adapt the current system so that we can use money more effectively. And if this means water companies paying money to manage the land in a more water-friendly way, then so be it. We should look to solve problems at their source rather than relying on the water industry to engineer a solution."

But many water companies and organisations believe that they are already doing as much as they can to reduce water consumption.

Bristol Water is just one company that points out that it has been advising customers on how to save water in their homes "for many years". And as for "solving" the leakage situation, a spokesman stresses that leakage on water systems simply cannot be reduced to zero.

Bristol Water says it has a very active leakage control programme and sophisticated continuous monitoring systems but even these cannot detect the background leakage from the "seeps and weeps".

A spokesman says: "This sort of leakage makes up half the reported leakage." Even if we could replace the mains and connections more frequently, the full problem would not be resolved and the cost and disruption to customers would not be acceptable. About one fifth of leakage is from customers' pipes.

"If we detect such a leak, we will ask the customer to get it fixed and in many cases will contribute to the repair or replacement cost. We could reduce the level of leakage still further but it would be very expensive, and so customer bills would go up significantly."

Bristol Water believes that more money will be required in the future to replace or refurbish mains where it sees the highest burst rates.

Meanwhile, British Water acknowledges the need for more regulation but also looks to increased personal responsibilities. It believes that regulations drive the adoption of new attitudes and innovation so that as well as calling for more restrictions and punishments, supported by pleas for more regulation, this should be augmented by encouraging the public to take personal responsibility over the use of water.

Ian Pallett, technical director of British Water, says: "If we [the population] did not place such high demands for water - dense populations in low water resource areas, more and more water-using appliances and wasteful use of water in the home and especially when not in the home because it is someone else's bill - then it may ease the problem.

"If we all accepted the logic of having water metered as we do for gas, electricity, phone calls, etc so that there was an economic pressure for a personal responsibility to use water carefully, then I am sure that would help significantly. However, targeted regulation as well as education will be necessary coerce people to change their habits."

Fresh thinking
Water UK, which criticised some of the language in the Blueprint, argues that a stronger consensus throughout society in favour of greater environmental investment is needed. Such a consensus is increasingly available but will not be helped by "extreme language or alarmist claims".

Water UK says it accepts that society is facing environmental problems and that there is a growing appreciation that climate change means fresh thinking is needed if we are to find genuinely sustainable solutions.

"The way forward is through sound science and holistic economic analysis as set out in the national sustainability strategy Securing the Future. This prescription is in use by water companies and their stakeholders [including many of the Blueprint group] in seeking the best ways to manage low-flow rivers, diffuse pollution from agriculture, the introduction of compulsory water meters, and the introduction of sustainable urban drains among other policy issues."

Members of the coalition are passionate about the need for action. Paul King, director of campaigns at WWF UK, stresses that urgent steps need to be taken in order to meet agreed European standards for water management by 2015 and so reverse the neglect of the UK's water resources and freshwater environment.

"Providing enough clean, safe water is becoming ever more difficult and expensive and climate change is increasing the challenge," says King.

The blueprint at a glance
1 Reduce water consumption by at least 20% through more efficient use in homes, buildings and businesses
British Water's Ian Pallett says: "There will need to be either an economic incentive for people to use less or the reverse - a penalty for excessive use - ie the use of meters with the operation of differential tariffs such as rising block tariffs, which increase cost with increasing use. It would be nice if people would do it out of a need to protect the environment rather than needing an economic incentive. This will be down to education for a longer-term commitment from the next householder generation."

2 Amend or revoke those water abstraction licences that damage rivers, lakes and wetlands
Pallett says: "This is all very well but people and industry do need water. And so alternative sources have to be provided, eg recycle treated wastewater either to industry or to both industry and indirectly, or even ultimately directly, for potable use. In Singapore industry uses recycled water and even the public drink NEWater - water from reservoirs which have received some treated wastewater. But this will have to become publicly acceptable. And a recent high-profile public consultation (in Toowoomba, Australia) did not get sufficient support because only 35% voted in favour of indirect potable use (treated wastewater directly into a reservoir for significant storage until abstracted for treatment before being put into supply)."

3 Make household water bills reflect the amount of water people use
Pallett agrees: "Yes install meters everywhere, place responsibility with the users, not with the water companies or government or regulators."

4 Ensure that those who damage the water environment bear the costs through more effective law enforcement and tougher penalties

5 Introduce targeted regulations to reduce harmful pollutants in water

6 Upgrade the sewage system to reduce discharges of sewage into urban environments and ecologically sensitive areas

7 Help farmers to prevent pollution and restore degraded soils, rivers and wetlands through advice, training and payments

Pallett says: "Yes, but we will have to be prepared to pay more for our food. And we should do so in order to avoid the airmiles of bringing food in from overseas."

8 Construct modern drainage systems that prevent pollution entering rivers from buildings and roads
Pallett says: "The technologies and techniques are available. And instead of the drainage systems directing stormwater for discharge into rivers in an uncontrolled manner, it could be used to generate local wetlands or even into reservoirs for treatment and use as a resource for water for industry or even potable use. But someone will have to pay via charges for roads or via council tax or direct tax."

9 Regenerate rivers, lakes and wetlands in partnership with local communities
See comment above

10 Restore large areas of wetland and floodplain to create vital wildlife habitats, improve water quality and quantity, and reduce urban flooding
Pallett says: This is a nice idea but the economies have to be considered - the crux is the avoidance of damage and economic consequence of flooding whether urban or rural."

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