An annual report from industry regulator Ofwat flagged up several utilities underperforming when it came to 2010 annual leakage targets. Blaming two severe winters, utilities across the country are investing heavily to improve networks. One has even created a "cold weather war chest"of investment...
It's never a nice experience to have your dirty laundry aired in public. And I'm not talking in the literal sense of the word. Just as this issue of WWi was going to print, a yearly report from industry regulator Ofwat named and shamed companies in England and Wales over their apparent poor performances in 2010/11.
Ear to the ground: Southern Water engineer uses a listening stick to trace leaks. The company was flagged up by Ofwat for missing its 2010/11 leakage target, which it says is the toughest in the country
Glossed up and spun as a positive report, the findings initially cited a 20% reduction in complaints over the last two years. Drinking water quality, too, was heralded as one of the best in Europe. However, six utilities - Severn Trent Water, Northumbrian Water, Yorkshire Water, Welsh Water, Anglian Water and Southern Water - were cited as failing to meet their 2010-2011 leakage targets. Worst still, Northumbrian, Yorkshire and Southern Water also failed to meet leakage targets set the year before.
To put the targets into perspective, Severn Trent Water was set the aim of reducing leakages to 483,000 m3/day. It was over this target by 14,000 m3/day. The same utility was also rapped on the knuckles a second time with Ofwat raising "particular concerns"about a high number of supply interruptions to customers.
In its defence, Severn Trent stated: "In those areas where we have fallen short we apologise to customers and we are making every effort to get performance where it should be. For example last year [2010/11] we failed to meet our leakage targets by 3%. However, we have now recovered in this area and are back to having some of the lowest leakage figures we have ever had."
In the utilities' defence, Ofwat did admit that leakage failures occurred in the context of the "second coldest winter in England and Wales since 1995/6". And all companies were said to report high numbers of burst pipes due to ground movement, caused by freezes and thaws. Other utilities agreed and also blamed the extreme weather conditions as the main culprit for leakage failure. Southern Water said in a statement: "Last winter was the coldest winter on record and the freezing conditions caused pipes to burst at an alarming rate…Despite two of the harshest winters on record in 2009 and 2010, which caused us to fail to meet our Ofwat leakage target…we have one of the toughest leakage targets in the industry."
Responsible for 40,000 km of sewers, the company said that it would - as a result of the leakages and as suspected damage limitation - return £5 million to its customers from 2015 to help reduce annual bills.
Yorkshire Water, meanwhile, confirmed it would invest £33 million of its own money into tackling leakages and improving the utility's pipe network.
Furthermore, in a bid not to be under prepared with the threat of another severe winter, Anglian Water said it will be investing an additional £6.8 million this year to add over 60 extra technicians to the company's leakage detection team before the beginning of December.
New recruits will be tasked with finding and fixing network leaks to prevent water unnecessary water wastage. Investment will top up already established funds of £7.2 million to create what the utility dramatically called a "cold weather war chest"of £14 million. Fighting talk, then.
It's easy to see why such strong measures are being taken. As we are all aware Northern Ireland Water faced a humbling predicament last Christmas when 40,000 households were left without water supply. Arctic conditions had well and truly paralysed the company's water supply.
Keen to send out a strong message to remaining utilities across England and Wales on the verge of missing their leakage targets, Ofwat reinforced the fact it has taken action against "companies following serious and consistent underperformance on leakage".
Strong tactics have clearly worked in the past. Following a warning, major utility Thames Water committed millions of pound worth of investment to improve leakage performance in 2006. Four years later the results speak for themselves. Thames Water did not get pulled up over its leakages in Ofwat's latest report.
The moral of the story? It's better to invest ahead of time into potentially problematic assets such as old pipes than wait until a cold winter and subsequent regulator report show you up. But in times of economic uncertainty, where every last penny spent has to be justified, the question of where the money is going to come from is another matter altogether. WWi