The water industry needs to make important decisions in a timely manner if it wants to be best placed to protect water supplies in the future.

Speaking as part of a session about managing water resources at Utility Week Live in Birmingham today (21 May) Yvette de Garis, head of environmental regulation for Thames Water said the sector cannot afford delays to major infrastructure projects.

She suggested there needs to be a greater focus on the implementation of water resources plans to ensure supply can meet demand in the coming years.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and the Environment Agency have both recognised that new resources such as reservoirs will need to be built or England could face a “jaws of death” situation within 25 years.

De Garis said Thames’ Water Resource Management Plan (WRMP) addresses the scenario outlined by Sir James Bevan, chair of the Environment Agency, as part of his headline-grabbing speech in March.

She said: “If the supply and demand deficit increase anymore we will end up in a critical situation.”

Thames Water has long been embroiled in a debate about the need for a new reservoir in its operating area.

De Garis insisted the company’s customers want a greater certainty of water supply and has asked it to plan for a one-in-200 event instead of a one-in-100 event.

The company, along with others in the South East face challenges such as climate change and population growth in an already water-stressed region.

By 2045, Thames Water expects an additional two million people will be living in its area.

“It’s quite scary when you think about the equivalent of Birmingham and Glasgow moving into London by 2045 but that’s what the projections mean,” De Garis said.

She suggested that while companies have factored in various data sets and predictions in their water resource plans there are a lot of things outside their control which could impact supply in the future.

“I want to be very clear about the need for timely decisions so we can manage these uncertainties and we don’t end up in a position where we don’t have the resources we need for customers.”

Thames Water has considered three main options – building reuse schemes, reservoirs and water transfers with other parts of the country.

“If we get to a point that we decide it’s not the right plan we can alter the order we do those schemes in but that’s really the only option we’ve got in the South East of England.”

But she warned that the company must keep in mind lead times for such projects as reuse schemes have a lead time of seven years and the proposed new reservoir could take 15 years.

“Given that we have committed to our customers that we will move to a more resilient supply systems by 2030 having planned for this one in 200 years event [drought] we need a decision in 2022/23 to progress that reuse scheme.”

She added: “That deadline becomes increasingly critical – and although we have set out this adaptive plan – our agility to anything really different becomes increasingly constrained if we miss it.

“If we don’t make a decision until later, we don’t have the lead time for the reservoir and our only opportunity will be to build multiple reuse schemes.”

De Garis said that government, regulators and companies all recognise the challenge and “a lot of things” have been put in place that “should help along the way”.

She outlined the evolving planning framework which spans national, regional and company plans.

“With everything going smoothly we should publish the final version of our next WRMP by spring 2023.

“But that phrase if everything runs smoothly is critical because if it doesn’t – if there are delays – everything starts moving out and our opportunity to make the best decision for society or the environment becomes constrained simply by the lead times associated with those options.

“At the moment all the organisations – government, regulators and companies – are working together better than they ever have before and that’s really good news.”

But she stressed how reliant the sector is on that continuing.

“Because history suggests the promotion of major projects in the UK is beset with difficulties and what we have seen more often than not is delays. If that happens with water resources to keep South East of England supply we may well end up with options that would not be our preferred choice.”

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