Despite concerns over supplies, water companies face pressure to reduce abstraction. As part of our Utility of the Future campaign, we explore the true scale of the problem and the potential routes forward

The looming threat of water shortages in England has been well publicised, and the problem cannot be solved simply by taking more from rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwater sources.

The Environment Agency (EA) has already warned that many catchments have no further water to spare due to a need to protect the environment and, with concerns over the sustainability of current abstraction levels, some water companies have already taken steps to reduce the amount they take.

Work is now taking place in several fields to explore solutions that could enable the water company of the future to ensure reliable supplies while helping to keep the environment in balance.

State of play

According to EA figures, nearly 9,500 billion litres of freshwater were abstracted in 2016, with 55 per cent of that taken for public water supply.

There are various reasons for the sector to try to bring about reductions. If water companies can better preserve their resources – through cutting leakage and consumption levels, for example – it increases security of supply and reduces the cost and carbon footprint associated with taking water from the environment, bringing it to potable standards and delivering it.

There are also concerns over the impact on the water sources, and the EA warned last year that even current levels of abstraction are unsustainable in more than a quarter of groundwater bodies and up to one-fifth of surface waters, with water levels reducing and damaging wildlife.

UKWIR is creating a route map for how the industry can halve freshwater abstractions in a sustainable way by 2050 as part of its 12 Big Questions campaign (see below), and chief executive Steve Kaye points out that – among the various reasons to take less water out of the environment – there is a reputational aspect.

“Water companies are taking more of a ‘social contract’ approach to running their businesses,” Kaye, a member of the Utility of the Future board, says.

“The Public Interest Commitment that Water UK are leading with the CEOs is all about demonstrating how utilities are not just about paying shareholders but protecting the environment and improving society, so it falls in line with that approach.”

Water companies have already worked alongside Ofwat and the EA to create the abstraction incentive mechanism (AIM), which is designed to shift abstraction to the least damaging sources.

However, circumstances can limit what can be achieved and, having experienced three consecutive dry winters in addition to last summer’s heatwave, the National Drought Group said recently that “one or two” companies may require permits to take more water than usual from rivers or boreholes later this year.

“When you have three dry winters in a row, you’ve got a problem,” Kaye says.

Scale of the issue

In June, 12 wildlife, conservation and angling groups wrote to EA chief executive Sir James Bevan urging him to demand that companies implement temporary use bans, saying: “Rivers and chalk streams in the south east are fast approaching a crisis point as a result of the impending drought caused by the last three dry winters.”

Martin Salter of the Angling Trust added: “Without urgent action now to reduce water use, many of our streams will dry up and die.”

While water companies have already handed back substantial licence volume, and considerable improvements have been made to the resilience of water supplies through reductions in leakage, there is justifiable concern. APEM, named Consultant of the Year at the 2019 Water Industry Awards, has worked extensively in the field of abstraction alongside water companies and the various UK regulators.

“There have been problems in some places – there’s no question about that,” Dan Cadman, APEM’s head of hydrology, says. “Chalk streams are sometimes impacted and they are valuable and visible, so there’s a lot of attention. There are similar issues elsewhere too, with reduced water tables in sandstone aquifers and issues downstream of reservoirs and catchwaters in upland areas.

“It’s not just the volume of water that’s taken but the effects of the abstraction structure so, with reservoirs or catchwaters, the structure itself is probably stopping sediment going downstream and may well be a barrier to fish passage.”

Cadman also highlights problems with changing the pattern of flows – which can mean salmon do not receive the required pulses of flow to trigger their migrations upstream and downstream – as well as rivers that may appear quite natural but where, as the result of a dam upstream, the sediment is seldom disturbed, and they lack the oxygenation required for fish spawning.

APEM has worked alongside Stantec to develop a ‘hydroecology model’ for Severn Trent that manages the impacts of groundwater abstraction, combining macroinvertebrate indices with flow reductions from groundwater models to develop flow targets. The company also won the Data Project of the Year prize at the 2018 Water Industry Awards for its work with Welsh Water and Natural Resources Wales, looking at the impact of water abstraction on shad populations, using field and aerial surveys alongside hydraulic modelling to estimate the likely loss of spawned shad eggs caused by abstraction changes.

Having studied the impact of abstraction in some depth, Cadman stresses that – while it can cause problems – it is often not as straightforward as might be suggested. When the EA identifies an issue during screening, APEM may be called in to pinpoint the precise causes.

“Obviously you want to resolve abstraction problems, but you don’t want to be resolving problems that aren’t real,” he says. “Quite often you’ll actually find abstraction is actually two or three in terms of significance, not number one.”

Diffuse pollution and changes to channel form, which have straightened and simplified river habitat and disconnected the channel from floodplains, are frequently found to be the primary culprits.

Wood technical director Rob Soley also has extensive experience in this area, having spent the last two decades helping the Environment Agency develop the catchment abstraction management strategy process for EU Water Framework Directive reporting, with a particular focus on groundwater abstractions and their impact on wetlands and rivers, as well as serving as an expert peer reviewer for Defra on its abstraction reform modelling work.

“We should be doing things that bring about ecological benefit,” Soley says. “I think too often the experience of reducing groundwater abstraction, particularly in relation to chalk streams, leads to disappointment in terms of the resulting flow recovery.

“Many people come at the abstraction reduction problem thinking: ‘If we reduce pumping from that borehole by a megalitre a day, we will get a megalitre a day back in that river.’ This may sometimes be true, but flow recovery is often considerably less than expected during low flow and drought periods.

“There’s a lot of hope that we’ll have gushing flows in summer periods in chalk valleys that wouldn’t naturally have gushing flows during hot and dry times.”

The Environmental Flow Indicator (EFI), which highlights deviation from natural river flow, is used in England and Wales to indicate where abstraction may start to cause an undesirable effect on river habitats and species.

Wood has carried out work to establish how much groundwater abstraction would need to cease in order to prevent flows falling beneath the EFI’s screening thresholds in river reaches where groundwater abstraction is the main influence on flow.

“The reductions across the whole of England are potentially huge,” Soley says. “We’d need to switch off more than one-third of all existing groundwater abstraction across public supply, agricultural and other sectors. If demand is not also reduced, the supply replacement cost would be enormous. I think, with some exceptions where the groundwater level or river flow recovery would indeed be significant, that money could deliver more direct ecological benefits if spent on habitat restoration and/or catchment-based water quality improvements.

“If such largescale reductions were implemented, we would also be closing down groundwater storage assets which will become increasingly essential for both public supply and agriculture in the future as the climate warms and drought periods become more prolonged. Groundwater is complicated and tends to confound simple expectations, so reductions need to be considered carefully to avoid disappointment.”

Soley is keen to emphasise that there are clear exceptions: he began his work in the field on the Redgrave and Lopham Fen restoration project in the late 1990s, which saw collaboration between Essex & Suffolk Water, the EA, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Natural England and the European Union to restore the biodiversity at a wetland by relocating a borehole.

“That’s a great example of where a local abstraction relocation has had a noticeable and widely acknowledged benefit that brought about environmental improvements,” he says. “It made a real difference. There are also effective groundwater to river augmentation schemes operated occasionally by both the Environment Agency and water companies which can help to maintain flows and reduce the ecological impacts of drought whilst allowing other abstractions to continue.”

APEM is working with the EA to help ensure that interventions on abstraction take place in those areas that will bring about real change.

“The evidence base is still a little bit weaker than, say, for water quality issues,” Cadman says. “I think over the next few years we’ll see quite a few changes to how things are done and that we’ll be able to model and predict those impacts with a bit more accuracy.

“I think we’ll have to do two things: we’ll have to get a bit smarter about abstraction and overall it may have to reduce.”

Alternative solutions

Regardless of the extent to which the water company of the future might be obliged to reduce freshwater abstraction, there is clearly a need to consider how to optimise the use of supplies to protect against the pressures of population growth and climate change.

Water Resources South East (WRSE), an alliance of the six water companies in south-east England plus the EA, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Natural England and Defra, focuses on developing more resilient and sustainable forms of water.

Trevor Bishop, WRSE’s organisational development director, believes abstraction reduction is an important goal since, beyond the environmental benefits, it may also prevent an overreliance on supply sources that could prove to be less reliable under future changes in climate and drought.

“If you can conserve this precious resource through demand management and reducing leakage, for example, there’s more to go around, more for the environment, and also more available for when pressures really bite,” he says.

While regional groups, water companies and regulators are all working together to ensure timely action to balance future demands and supply, there is no room for complacency.

Part of WRSE’s work is to understand how the various pressures might grow into the future, and Bishop highlights that, while agriculture is responsible for around 50 to 60 per cent of abstraction in many countries, that figure is around 1 per cent nationally here.

“We don’t have the same agricultural demand at the moment, but we’re all doing some work at the moment to look at what agricultural need might be in the future, post-Brexit etc,” Bishop says. “It’s unlikely to increase to the kind of levels we see in Mediterranean countries but it might well increase, so we’re including that, and the needs of other sectors, in our regional modelling approach.”

In March, the BBC pointed out that the average annual rainfall in the south east is around 500-600mm, which is less than Perth in Australia, but work has taken place there that may help provide a route forward for the most water-stressed parts of the UK.

“In Perth, the millennial drought hasn’t ended,” he says. “That’s probably the most westernised area where they’re experiencing what could be a permanent shift in climate – it’s getting on for four decades now.”

Ninety-two per cent of the water supply in Perth came from dams in 1958, with the remainder from groundwater sources, but the situation had completely changed by 2014: water from dams was supplying just 7 per cent and, while groundwater abstraction rose to 42 per cent, desalination provided 50 per cent, with ‘advanced water recycling’ delivering the remaining 1 per cent.

“They’re taking 7 per cent from dams because their rainfall isn’t sufficient to refill them,” he says. “They’ve got some desalination, some treated effluent back into the groundwater and then taken out lower down, and they’ve done a lot of demand management. They’ve really reduced their primary abstraction from the environment.”

Since desalination functions best when run constantly and carries its own environmental impacts, it is not an automatic, simple solution for the UK, but WRSE is exploring a variety of options. The organisation is actively undertaking site visits to explore whether emerging technology, such as graphene, is sufficiently advanced to progress planning for the world’s first at-scale trial.

Wastewater recycling is another hugely promising opportunity, although there are obvious concerns with public perception.

“If we can recycle and recirculate water within the system, that creates an incredible opportunity for the future,” Bishop says.

“What we saw in Australia was fascinating – during the millennial drought, they started building a series of treatment plants to reuse wastewater and it went pretty well in most places, but in some places a few politicians started using the term ‘poo water’, which had significant impacts on public acceptability.”

Orange County, California, has succeeded in reusing wastewater to top up water supplies, with up to 50 million gallons a day delivered into a groundwater replenishment system. To overcome the barrier around public perception, they spent $1 million on focus groups before building the plant in 2008 and have continued to run daily tours.

“I believe it is possible to shift public opinion and acceptability in the long term,” Bishop says. “Even if we spent, say, £10 million on engagement, it would be money well spent compared to the infrastructure we’d have to build to create alternative – and less sustainable and resilient – options.

“We’re also quite rightly looking at building transfers from areas of surplus to areas of deficit to balance supplies, including from the north west to the south east, but these options also require careful and objective assessment – not only are the carbon costs significant but, if we remember the summer of 2017, it showed us that the north of England can be equally prone to drought.”

He suggests the Chelmsford scheme run by Essex & Suffolk Water, which sees wastewater treated to a high environmental standard and then abstracted downstream, might represent a successful blueprint.

“The Chelmsford scheme seems to work really well – everyone’s very happy,” he says. “That only goes in a relatively short section of river, but it’s indirect and people can live with that.”

The future

Last year, the EA noted that while high winter river flows have increased over the past three decades, there is not yet a clear trend in droughts and that, even looking back to the mid-18th century, summer rainfall has decreased only slightly.

Even so, the lack of rainfall over recent years shows the potential threat cannot be ignored, and population growth threatens to exacerbate the situation.

As new technologies emerge and efforts to cut carbon ramp up, there is likely to be an increased focus on demand management, leakage reduction and alternative sources of supply, which – allied to an improved understand of abstraction impacts – could provide a platform for a sustainable approach that will serve our water companies long into the future.

WATER COMPANY VIEW: “Halving abstraction by 2050 is enough of a challenge to promote a change in thinking”

By Paul Merchant, South West Water supply demand planning manager and UKWIR programme lead on water resources

“UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) has been undertaking common-voice research projects for the water industry for more than two decades. While some of this research has been strategic, much of it has been in response to current and emerging issues. A desire to help shape the future, rather than responding to it, has led UKWIR to launch its Big Question programme.

“The 12 Big Questions cover all aspects of the water industry, from clean to wastewater along with cross-cutting topics such as affordability and carbon. Together these questions provide an aspiration view of the industry that UKWIR want to help create over the coming decades.

“One of these questions is ‘How do we halve our freshwater abstractions in a sustainable way by 2020?’ – but why halve abstractions, and why do it by 2050? It would be easy to over-complicate the answer but arguably the biggest impact our water resources activity has is through taking water out of the environment. So, halving what we take can benefit the environment, and doing it by 2050 is enough of a challenge to promote a change in thinking from the industry as it’s not achievable simply by doing what we currently do better.

“The problem is that as a standalone question it seems insurmountable. So, the first step is to break it down into a few smaller outcomes that contribute to its achievement, then develop research paths to meet these outcomes. That was the purpose of the gap analysis and routemap development project recently completed by Hydrologic Services, supported by Artesia and the Universities of Leeds and Exeter.

“By quantifying current abstraction levels in the UK and Ireland and understanding the demand reductions ambitions already included in water resources plans, the scale of the challenge becomes clear. The successful delivery of ambitious planned consumption and leakage reductions will see abstraction fall by less than 10 per cent, albeit against a backdrop of rising population. Even meeting another of UKWIR’s Big Question aspirations of zero leakage in 2050 leaves a reduction comparable to the total supply to non-household left to find in other ways.

“What are the other ways of achieving this reduction? That question framed the second part of the gap analysis and routemap project, which identified five key outcomes to guide future research:

• Deep reductions in consumption by household and non-household users
• Minimising losses from water treatment and supply systems
• Developed sustainable alternatives to freshwater abstraction
• Joined-up governance for water, wastewater and stormwater management
• Evidence-based abstraction reductions

“Clearly a reduction in customer consumption must contribute to any solutions, and this is the subject of the first research stream identified. The industry is channelling a lot of effort into this field already, but even with initiatives such as Southern Water’s ‘Target 100’ – which aims to reduce per capita consumption to less than 100 litres per person per day, with the average in England and Wales currently over 140 – there’s a lot more that will need to be done to meet the abstraction reduction ambition. Understanding and influencing customer behaviour plays a big part in this area.

“The second outcome concerns the water industry’s contribution to abstraction, through the water used or lost in production, treatment and distribution. The ‘How will we achieve zero leakage in a sustainable way by 2050?’ Big Question research programme is already up and running and will contribute a lot to this outcome.

“The opportunities for reducing the industry’s own use in treatment and distribution, and the contribution that this could make to the abstraction reduction aspiration, are not well understood. While likely to be small in quantity, being seen to do our bit will be vitally important when asking customers to make changes.

“All the talk of reducing consumption risks losing sight of the important role that alternative sources of water could play in the future. Could recycled water replace freshwater abstractions? Will there be a breakthrough in low-energy desalinations before 2050? These technologies could be game-changers in water resources planning, and our third outcome looks to help develop opportunities such as these.

“Some of these technological opportunities will be supported by the fourth outcome underlying this Big Question, which aims to promote a joined-up approach to water, wastewater and stormwater management. Realising opportunities that provide benefits across water management activities, and providing the evidence that Government needs to effectively legislate in this area, is an important part of achieving this outcome.

“Evidence also forms an important part of our fifth outcome, which looks to understand the benefits (and, in a few cases, problems) associated with reducing abstraction. It’s this evidence that will ensure reductions can be targeted to provide the maximum benefit, and the investment required to deliver them justified.

“Halving abstractions is a worthy ambition for UKWIR to take on, but one that’s destined for failure if we try to tackle it alone. Success will require a collaborative approach across the industry, regulators, academia, environmental NGOs, and others, different delivery routes for the research contributing to the outcomes. Only by bringing together the expertise, drive and resources of all these groups will the ambition be realised – why not get in touch and see how you can contribute to this vision?

“If you’d like to find out more, please contact me ( or Oluseyi Onifade, UKWIR’s strategic programme manager overseeing the research.”