From drought to flood to??

When flood warnings overlap drought orders you know you are living in interesting times. Some things at the start of May, such as fielders suffering from frostbite as the cricket season warms up are traditional, others, such as difficulties in obtaining asparagus are rather shocking.

Looking at the Environment Agency data for England at the start of May Research/ Weekly_WSR_WE_010512.pdf, water was gushing through the various river regions, as you would imagine. Indeed, there were 8 with normal flow, 2 with above normal, 8 notably high and 20 exceptionally high.

Of the 38 reservoirs and reservoir groups in England 14 were at normal levels, 13 were at higher than normal levels and 11 are below normal levels. The real problem is when we look at the aquifers. Data is provided for 25 major aquifers in England. One was exceptionally high, 6 normal, 8 below normal and 10 exceptionally low. Those aquifers are going to need a lot of steady rain to get back to normal and the reservoirs that matter and the ones that are continuing to feel the pinch.

By 19th June Current_Situation_21_June_2012_-_maps.pdf the number of people affected by hosepipe bans had eased from 20 million to perhaps eight million. After days wiped out at test and one day international matches, all rivers remained at normal or higher levels, all but five reservoirs were at normal or higher levels but three aquifers remain at exceptionally low levels.

Water transfers and more desalination have been mooted as an answer, but the problem here is that rather like Premiership footballers, water transfers are not cheap and when faced with scarcity, the new assets do not always perform as intended. Indeed, the Environment Agency’s 2006 calculations are sobering. Assuming a 7% return on regulated assets for calculating how much customers may pay, the Pennine transfer proposal would cost £630-1,050 million pa and evenly divided amongst the 20 million people originally affected by the hosepipe ban this is £72 to £121 extra for each household bill.

Is it time to take demand management seriously?

Now is the time to take demand management seriously. More value ought to be generated from less water consumed. In England and Wales, average domestic consumption is 150 litres per person each day and plans are to reduce this to 130 by 2030. Yet average individual use by customers at Veolia Water East is 125 litres per day and just 111 for their metered customers. Inevitably, VW East has 73% metering and despite being in the heart of the drought area it is not yet affected by the shortages. In 2009 VW East wanted 90% metering by 2015, but Ofwat disagreed and they are going for 78% by 2015 and 90% by 2030, unless matters change. Attitudes must change if water supplies are to be secured.

Smart thinking helps

What about the excess. Just as smart water techniques (smart metering to drive domestic demand down, smart monitoring to detect and minimise leakage and smart management to ensure networks are used efficiently) can deal with drought, there are smart ways of dealing with heavy rainfall. Suez Environnement has developed a suite of techniques to deal with heavy stormwater flows in the sewerage network as well as real time flood forecasting and mapping to ensure people and agencies can respond to rising river levels in time. The beauty about real time monitoring and data availability is how it can prevent flood events. Pachube developed a software interface that allows New York’s storm sewerage system managers to warn customers when loading is getting too high, to that they can postpone switching on washing machines and so on until flow levels have abated.

The Water Bill’s postponement may be a blessing if it allows politicians some time to consider recent events and to provide Britain with a regulatory climate fit for our metrological climate.

At the Water UK conference last week Defra Minister Richard Benyon said that metering needs to take into account its effect on poorer families. I find this a bit odd, since all gas and electricity accounts have always been metered in some way. Defra’s recent announcement paving the way for social tariffs for households that spend more than 5% of their income on water and sewerage services may be a huge breakthrough here.