water@leeds tackling UK water supply issues

Last 19th March 2019, Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, gave a speech at the Waterwise Conference that warned the serious threats facing the UK’s water supply in the forthcoming decades.

In his address he highlighted that more had to be done to increase supply, including building new reservoirs, reforming the current system of water abstraction and cutting leakage.

water@leeds scientists are already working to address many of these areas of concern.

Dr Megan Klaar, a researcher from the School of Geography and water@leeds, is currently collaborating with Leeds colleagues and the Environment Agency to assess how the government can increase the resilience of our water resources to future climate change by altering water abstraction practices to address future shortages and still maintain ecological integrity.

Dr Klaar said: “Building new reservoirs could help with supply issues, but these big projects have a long lead in-time. This is an urgent issue and we will need a multi-pronged approach. One pinch point for water resource availability is the UK’s system for determining water abstraction permits and licenses, which determine who can take water out of rivers and reservoirs. When these permits were first instigated it was on a first-come, first-served basis – with very few limitations set on how much water can be taken from rivers and the environment.

“Part of our research is to explore how new abstraction practices could improve water availability and management, such as abstracting water during periods of high flow or creating a market for trading abstraction permits. For example, if a farmer doesn’t need his abstraction permit in August, he or she could sell the permit for that month to another party.

“But we have personal responsibility for water security too. Water companies are the biggest water abstractors and they are driven by our demand for water – we need to be smarter about how we are using it.”

Professor Martin Tillotson is a Director of the water@leeds research centre and Chair in Water Management in the Faculty of Engineering at Leeds.

He said: “There are issues with industry finance and the amount water companies spend on infrastructure; they really need to ensure sufficient investment is available to improve the resilience of the existing network.

“There are three main options: you can look to replace pipes with new ones, or line existing ones from the inside using structural polymers, which increases the structural integrity. The third option, which is often the most cost-effective and therefore widely used, is simply to react to bursts when they happen.

“There is a lot of political pressure to keep bills under control, which then reduces the appetite for water utilities to invest in replacing or relining pipes. Realistically though, part of the water companies’ profits should be being re-invested into dealing with leakage, especially in companies that consistently fail to meet their targets to reduce leaks.

“Last year, there was a lot of media attention about the abundance of burst pipes being an unprecedented situation, yet in 2010-11 the UK experienced a similar set of weather conditions. So, the question is: what lessons are we learning from these experiences, and how can we prevent it from happening again?”

He added: “The methods of finding and repairing leaks are very basic and cheap; it relies on technology that is 30 years old and someone digging a hole in the road. There is a question about how much companies are willing to innovate to move that technology forward when the alternatives might prove more expensive.

“If you can identify leaks earlier then they can be fixed before they become a major problem; ultimately, the companies need to engage with researchers and tech providers more regularly to come up with more advanced ways of identifying leaks and fixing them before they become problematic.”