£1.2bn Oxfordshire reservoir plans contested over emissions impact

Plans for a new reservoir in Oxfordshire, put forward to improve climate adaptation in the water sector, are facing opposition on the grounds that the project would undermine carbon-neutral commitments of a local district council.  

£1.2bn Oxfordshire reservoir plans contested over emissions impact

The Water Resources in the South East (WRSE) group, comprising six water companies, is currently consulting on plans to develop a new 7km sq reservoir in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, to enter operations in 2040 at the latest.

The £1.2bn project would take water from the River Thames during high flows and return it during low flows, thus contributing to the management of water resources during changing weather patterns including flooding and droughts. Without better water management in South East England, WRSE believes there will be a 2.8 billion litre shortfall in supplies each year by 2075, accounting for factors including population growth and climate change.

While the climate adaptation benefit of building the reservoir, known as the South East Strategic Reservoir Option (SERSO), are clear, there is growing local opposition to the project on the grounds of other likely environmental impacts.

The Vale of White House District Council is opposing the project on the grounds of the levels of greenhouse gas emissions that will be generated in the construction of the reservoir, plus the emissions that will be generated upstream and embodied in the materials used to build it.

Thames Water has estimated that the SERSO project would generate around 400,000 tonnes of CO2e in the initial construction phase. For context, this is around half of the annual emissions footprint of the entire City of Oxford. Most of these emissions are attributable to the use of concrete.

With this in mind, the District Council has stated that the project “will adversely impact its ability to become carbon-neutral by 2045”. It is aiming to reduce emissions across the district by 75% by 2030, against a 2019 baseline, before reaching carbon neutrality five years ahead of the UK’s legally binding target.

Instead of the SERSO, the District Council is advocating for the £1.2bn to be spent on upgrading existing water infrastructure and delivering a portfolio of “smaller, less environmentally destructive” projects.

Oxfordshire County Council is also opposed to SERSO. It has noted the carbon impacts and also voiced concerns about biodiversity and “destructive” impacts on local people.

Next steps

WRSE has contested that it considered more than 1,000 options to future-proof water supplies in its region through infrastructure improvements and new infrastructure. A spokesperson told edie’s sister title Utility Week: “In assessing these schemes, WRSE has considered a range of factors including construction time, short and long-term environmental impact, wider societal benefits, carbon emissions and the resilience of the source during droughts.”

Across the 1,000 options and across all of these metrics, SERSO won out.

WRSE has now concluded its consultation with a view to draw up a final plan by the end of this year. This final plan would then need to be put to the UK Government’s planning inspectorate, as reservoirs of this size are counted as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs).

The UK Government is notably reforming the approval process for NSIPs at present after recording a 65% increase in project delivery timeframes since 2012. Reforms will include changes to how developers convey assessments of their projects’ environmental impacts.

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