How to make a little go a long way

The current drought is the second serious one to have hit the UK in ten years. Back in the mid-1990s, road tankers were used to transport water to the worst-hit area - West Yorkshire. But what contingency plans do the water utilities now have in place to ensure the supply of water? Sally Nash investigates

In the midst of this dry, hot summer that is causing problems for some water companies in the South, it is worth casting our minds back to the severe drought of 1995/6 when Yorkshire Water took the emergency step of tankering in water from neighbouring districts.

This year, Sutton & East Surrey Water has a drought order in place while Thames Water and Southern and Mid Kent water companies are awaiting decisions on similar applications. Under the six-month order, Sutton and East Surrey Water can ban car washing, the filling of swimming pools and watering of parks and sports grounds.

This is bad enough, but could the situation worsen so that we might face a Yorkshire Water scenario all over again?

An industry source, wishing to remain anonymous, says that behind the scenes there are set procedures in place with water firms. If an emergency situation arises, they can simply “press the button and there are logistics companies in place who can offer those facilities with specified costings”.

However, the source does admit that such an extreme situation is improbable: “I would be very, very surprised if it happened like this again.”

Water UK also plays down the possibility of a similar situation ever taking place again. A spokesman says: “As a last resort, and in exceptional circumstances, emergency measures such as tankering would be introduced. This would primarily only be for smaller, isolated areas and in relatively low volumes. The situation now is very different to that experienced in Yorkshire ten years ago. The issue then was very localised and largely due to poor connectivity between supply zones within the same company.

“All those involved in the industry recognise the progress we have made since then, including more strategic and publicly available water resource and drought management plans, better connectivity between resource zones, catchments and companies.”

South West Water agrees that the Yorkshire Water experience is not likely to be repeated, however much the water shortages bite.

A spokesman says: “Road tankers have been used historically for transfer to local treated water storage reservoirs when small volumes are required. But they are not a feasible option for the bulk transfer of major raw water resources to the region.”

When asking road tanker manufacturers and rental firms whether water companies are ordering more vehicles as a contingency measure, the picture is mixed.

Manufacturer Whale Tankers says there has been a “significant increase” in the number of enquiries for road tankers from water utilities, particularly in southern England.

However, Fuller Tankers, which supplied “loads” of tankers to Welsh Water, Southern Water and South West Water during the 1995/6 drought, has not noticed any change in demand. “No, there has been no great flurry for water tankers,” says a spokesman. He believes that the tankers supplied at that time would still be going strong as they were made of stainless steel, and would not have been used much.

“At the time of the drought we were very busy, even using motorbikes to take spares to the tankers as well as building pumping units to go on the vehicles, modifying ex milk and brewery tankers and building new,” adds the spokesman.

TIP Tankers, part of GE Equipment Services, is the largest tanker rental operator in Europe. Gavin Parker, marketing manager of TIP Tankers, says the company rents out road tankers which are used for a range of different uses, including at festivals, golf centres and garden centres.

“There has probably been a slight increase in demand for tankers but nothing major this year,” says Parker. “When the Yorkshire Water thing kicked off, though, those were our tankers being used.”

If water companies insist that tankering in water is a very last resort, what are they doing in terms of contingency plans?

According to Sutton and East Surrey Water, its contingency plans are already in place. The company effectively began introducing its contingency planning to combat long-term lower-than-average rainfall, which has led to the current drought conditions and lack of water resources, on April 22, 2005. This was when Sutton and East Surrey Water introduced its first water-use restriction – banning the use of garden sprinklers and unattended hosepipes in its supply area.

SESW was the first water company in the country to take this precautionary measure to protect its water resources and successfully maintained essential supplies to customers throughout 2005.

Following a second successive dry winter, further measures have been taken. First, the introduction of a full hosepipe ban on March 1 and then, notably, the introduction of the drought order on May 27 this year. This bans the non-essential use of water.

“Given this prudent step, we believe we will not run out of water this summer and will not need to take any other action in the near future,” says a spokesman.

Still in the South of England, South West Water’s projections indicate that major supply problems are very unlikely this summer. However, if the summer is very dry, the reservoirs could be well drawn down by the September/October period, necessitating the use of the pumped storage schemes over another winter.

In the unlikely event of unprecedented conditions occurring, then the company says it would implement a progressive policy of measures as set out in its drought plan.

These measures would include:

  • Increasing operational monitoring
  • Publicity
  • Direct appeals to customers for restraint in their use of water
  • Additional water conservation measures
  • Installation of temporary boosters and changes to the distribution system
  • Introduction of emergency sources of water

Several water companies have worked in collaboration since the Yorkshire Water saga ten years ago. Portsmouth Water, for example, got together with other local water utilities several years ago to form a regional group in a bid to discuss drought measures in the longer term.

Now the company is providing a bulk supply of up to 15Ml of water a day to Southern Water – the Sussex North Resource Zone – that is badly affected by drought. This is achieved – not by road – but by a fixed pipeline.

And of course there are many water companies that are in the lucky situation of having reservoirs in their regions where capacity is not a problem, such as Northumbrian Water which supplied the water to Yorkshire ten years ago. It currently has 22 reservoirs, of which the largest is Kielder Water. This holds enough for 2.5 billion bathfulls.

Only 7% of the total supplied is from ground water supplies, the rest from reservoirs. Kielder is currently more than 90% full and the others are around the 80% mark.

A spokesman says that despite the healthy situation, Northumbria still asks customers to use water wisely and is active in refurbishment of network.

Northumbria has not had any water restrictions in the region since Kielder came on stream in 1982.

United Utilities is another lucky company. A spokesman says: “Reservoirs are currently 88% full so we are in a fortunate position in the North-west as we do not rely so heavily on ground water supplies. We are not anticipating drought orders etc.”

He says: “This does not mean we are complacent – we work with our customers all year round to use water wisely. We continually update our contingency plans to present to the regulator. This is really an issue of ground water sources versus reservoirs.”

Bristol Water says that throughout the winter and spring period, the company operated the supply system in order to maximise the water volumes in storage for the summer.

To conserve reservoir stocks, maximum volume transfers from the River Severn have been made and water from the River Axe has been pumped into Cheddar Reservoir.

The company says it continues to monitor the situation very closely with regard to reservoir storage and customer consumption. Bristol Water is not totally reliant on reservoirs – currently, surface water provides 35% of the company’s needs; the River Severn via the Sharpness Canal, 52%; and groundwater, 13%.

The companies with real problems at the moment, such as Thames Water, declined

to comment on their own particular situations. Meanwhile golf courses and parks in affected areas have been struggling to cope with the water restrictions in a busy time of year for sporting events.

Epsom Downs golf course is covered under Thames Water. Thames has applied for a drought order that might be granted this month. “We are trying to conserve as much water as we can in advance of the order,” says a spokesman.

Meanwhile Walton Heath Golf Club in Tadworth, Surrey, is having to make arrangements to have recycled “brown water” delivered by tankers to water the greens of its two 18-hole championship courses. Around 100,000 litres are used to water its green on a normal summer night. The club has been in talks with Sutton and East Surrey Water, asking for an exemption, but so far one has not been granted.

So what of the future? Well, water resource systems in the UK are very sensitive to climatic variations. Experts believe that future climate change scenarios suggest summer reductions in rainfall by as much as 50%, and winter increases as high as 30%.

These changes will have serious implications for water resource systems management in the coming years.

The Wincanton experience

Third-party logistics provider Wincanton is involved in three different types of water provision by vehicle.

The first is for isolated, unplanned emergencies – for example when a pipe breaks down and households are left without a water supply. In this kind of incident Wincanton will use an emergency response team, which will be mobilised and asked to provide fresh drinking water within 24 hours. “We are contracted to four authorities to handle this sort of work,” says Wincanton’s Gareth Smith. Flat beds carrying tanks would be used to deliver water to street corners while bulk food-grade tankers would carry larger amounts of water (9,000-30,000 litres) to fill up the tanks standing on the street corners.

The second kind of water provision handled by Wincanton centres on planned emergencies such as those created by drought orders. This is where large amounts of water are needed at air shows and festivals like Glastonbury. Wincanton delivered more than three million litres of fresh, clean water to the most recent Glastonbury festival over a five days. The third area of water provision again centres on recognised drought order areas that need water for parks and golf courses because of hosepipe bans.

Yorkshire: The facts

The company was forced to introduce a large-scale road tankering operation in September 1995 following the hot summer that year – reservoirs in West Yorkshire had run dry while demand reached record levels.

At the peak of the tankering operation, 700-plus tankers were being used 24-hours a day, filling up from rivers in East Yorkshire and beyond to refill the empty reservoirs. The tankering stopped in January 1996, and is understood to have cost Yorkshire Water around £47M.

Wincanton’s Gareth Smith says that it, along with many other distribution firms, was moving water across the Pennines for Yorkshire Water. Exel [then Exel Logistics] managed the project.

“Basically anyone with a food-grade tanker went in to try to make money. There were so many people involved that it was felt a logistics company needed to co-ordinate the movements.”

This summer, Yorkshire Water is reassuring customers that its water supply levels are good and that no restrictions are expected this year. The company operates a robust grid system so it can move water around the area much more easily than in the past. Unlike some areas that rely on ground water for their supplies, Yorkshire Water uses a combination of ground water, river water and reservoirs to maintain its supplies to customers. It can draw on each or all of these resources.

Robert Lloyd of Yorkshire Water says: “The grid system means we can assure customers that, whatever the weather, we can provide our usual service. We don’t anticipate restrictions this summer.”

Current water stocks across the region are at around 88%.

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