Water Resources, Water Quality and Future Challenges

Summary of OWN/CIWEM joint seminar

The Oxford Water Network (OWN), and the South Central Branch of CIWEM (Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management) recently hosted a seminar entitled Water Resources, Water Quality and Future Challenges, presenting the work of three leading experts: environmental scientists Liz Coulson, and Andy Gill from Atkins, and Henry Leveson-Gower, a Policy Adviser from Defra.

The following article presents a summary of each talks, podcasts of which can be found on the ECI YouTube channel here.

Chemical Investigation Programme
Liz Coulson leads Severn Trent’s work on the Chemical Investigation Programme (Phase 2), a nationwide collaborative featuring 11 wastewater companies, and regulators. CIP2 builds on earlier phase (2009 to 2012) which sought to better understand the occurrence, behaviour and management of trace contaminants in water course. This comprised a massive sampling programme, testing 45 regulated substances, at 162 wastewater treatments plants, as well as effectiveness to existing treatment processes at their removal. This research, in combination with 9 catchments studies, helped better understand the sources of these substances, their behaviour through the environment and how they are managed. CIP 1 provided insight into the likelihood of compliance under the Environmental and Quality Standards Directive (EQSD) of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) which sets standards for a number of chemicals which must be met if water bodies are to achieve “good status” – both ecological and chemical.

This list of substances regulated under the EQSD is not exhaustive and subject to periodic revision as science advances. CIP 2 will expand sampling to include 75 substances, both those already regulated and those expected to become regulated in the near future. This process includes the monitoring effluent from 600 treatment works, measurements upstream and downstream from wastewater treatment plants, and 5 catchment studies. Unlike CIP1, which focussed on traditional treatment technology, CIP 2 will pilot up to 10 novel treatment technologies. In all, the research will take over 60,000 samples, resulting in over 3million determinants – an unprecedented dataset, in terms for volume of sample, and range of substances sampled. This data will provide insight into the current risks of non-compliance, and enable companies to invest in solutions today, to address expected future changes to policies and regulations. To this end, Atkins is currently developing a decision support tool which will use this data which will generate an optimal set of measure to address non-compliance. The project runs from 2015 until 2020.

Ecological impact of abstraction
Andy Gill (Atkins) presented a systemic review of literature concerning the artificial alteration of flow regimes, commissioned by the Environment Agency and conducted in collaboration with CEH and Amec Foster Wheeler. The review sought to gain insight into how abstraction, impoundment and discharge, affects river biota, and assess the extent to which existing standards are appropriate today. If regulations are too conservative they risk imposing excessive and unnecessary restrictions on water users; if too lenient, they risk detrimental impact to the environment.

Atkins’ review targeted grey literature only i.e. non-academic reports. Around half of the studies included in this review reported that artificial flow alterations had a negative impact on riverine ecology, while a third reported no impact. Results were typically less conclusive in ephemeral and intermittent reaches. Groundwater abstraction was found to have a greater effect on flow than surface water abstraction, a notable finding given that the opposite is generally assumed to be the case. The research also found that very few pristine catchments remain in the UK, with 96% reporting some pressure.

The study concluded that existing environmental flow indicators are broadly in agreement with trends observed in unpublished literature, but adds that those site-specific investigations are required to understand localised responses and variance to abstraction impact. The findings are particularly relevant to the implementation of environmental flow indicators (EFI) and water abstraction reform in England and Wales.

Abstraction reform
Henry Leveson-Gower, who leads UK’s water abstraction reform at DEFRA (Department of Environment and Rural Affairs), spoke of the key developments in emerging from the UK’s recent consultation on water abstraction reform with a particular focus on the water resilience outside of the public water supply.

Henry highlighted the highly developed, collaborative catchment management systems found in Spain, which arose over centuries in response to water scarcity. Given that some predict the UK climate will be similar to that currently found in Spain in 100 years, adopting a more sophisticated and collaborative approach to water management should be a priority. UK abstraction reform aims to transition the country from a more individual system to a more integrated on which 1) allows more flexible and fairer responses to short term changes in flows; 2) provides adequate certainty for long-term investment and growth whilst also protecting the environment; and 3) is able to respond to future pressures such as climate change and population growth.

A key aspect of this is the issuance of new permits expected in the early 2020s, tied to a set of “catchment rules”. These rules set specific environmental objectives, such as flow thresholds, which can limit abstraction when it poses significant environmental risk, as well as establishing a framework to utilise water trading. This process aims to create a more holistic and responsive approach to abstraction management, ensuring abstraction management is better aligned with catchment management in the UK.

Henry offered an example as to how such regulation can help support the private sector. In South East of England the fruit and vegetable sector has grown markedly in recent years; in Kent alone, the sector’s water usage has doubled over the last 5 years. Much of this growth has been driven by trickle irrigation, which is currently exempt from abstraction licensing, a situation set to change in the near future. New irrigation licenses, expected to come into force around 2021, will be based on a maximum volume of water used between 2012-2016. This will pose constraints of long-term water use and the growth of the sector.

The new catchment management regime aims to address this bottleneck by facilitating water trading, establishing a mechanism for “pre-approved” trades which can been implemented instantaneously when the need exists. One example is a new water reuse plant on the River Medway mooted in Southern Water’s Water Resource Management plan, which could become operational by 2022. This plant would free up water in other parts of the Southern Water system to be used for irrigation, and supply 10% of the current irrigation, and will have enough excess capacity to meet irrigation needs for a number of years. Beyond this, Henry believes that putting in place the necessary institutional and infrastructure systems to facilitate water trade for irrigators, establishes a business case for reuse, which will attract the private sector investment for future reuse schemes outside of the OFWAT system, enabling the long term expansion of irrigated agriculture in the region.

“We have potentially have a set of people who want to be regulated and who are willing to be paid to be regulated because regulation actually provides a facility which enables them to get water,” explained Henry, “That changes what we mean by regulation and what regulation does […] regulation is no longer an evil, something to avoid and to try and minimize: regulation actually becomes a service a benefit to ensure you can get water when you need it and to manage your risks.”

Henry concluded that abstraction reform aims to help enable businesses better manage their water risks in the context of a changing climate, while protecting the environment.

You can find out more about CIWEM here
The activities of the local CWIEM branch can be seen here: