Ofwat decision drops water quality schemes

The UK regulatory agency Ofwat drops water quality initiatives following a major storm sewage discharge into the River Thames, and European Commission warnings of non-compliance with Water Framework and the Urban Wastewater Treatment directives.

by Pamela Wolfe

London's latest fish kill caused by the unsightly surge of 600,000 tonnes of untreated sewage and urban runoff flowing into the River Thames on 3 August is just the latest of many incidents that illustrates the difficulty of managing (or trying to manage) the effects of urban development and climate change with Victorian infrastructure.

Two days later, as the tide was still moving the sewage up and down the river, the UK regulatory agency Ofwat decided to actually reduce government funding of water quality improvements that water companies must make between 2005 and 2010. Earlier the UK Environment Agency (EA) proposed a five-year, £5 to £8 billion programme to help the country comply with European Union directives; however Ofwat reduced this to £2.01 billion. Both the Environment Agency and the European Industries Commission (EIC) issued their disappointment with the decision, which demonstrates the government's lack of commitment to the water environment.

Some of the projects removed from the environment programme include projects to protect coastal waters from storm sewage discharges, and to solve London's serious sewerage system problem - a problem that will not go away unless a long-term solution is implemented. According to the EA, the failure of sewer systems to cope with storm water accounts for 30% of flooded homes in the UK.

The EA reported on 4 August 2004: "London's network cannot properly even cope with moderate rainfall and regularly sees these discharges occurring on average 50 to 60 times a year." The city drainage network could not manage the sudden summer down pour, resulting in the overflow of storm sewage into the river to prevent it from flooding city streets and homes in London. Consequently, the storm sewage depleted oxygen in the river, killing thousands of fish. New housing developments are also blamed for overloading drainage systems.

Yet, climate change could more than double the number of sewer flooding incidents in the UK, according to predictions made by the DEFRA Foresight project using a MWH modelling and data analysis tool. The UK Meteorological Office predicted that by 2080 rainfall depths could increase 1.4 times current levels and double in flood frequency and volume. The global engineering consultancy MWH teamed up with HR Wallingford, the Meteorological Office and Imperial College for the past two and a half years to study the potential impact of climate change on the performance of the UK's sewerage system. The Foresight project concluded: "traditional solutions to sewer flooding may become unsustainable in the long term."

In Europe, significant investment must be made in flood protection to reduce the tragic consequences of extreme floods. Two weeks before Ofwat issued its draft decision, the European Commission (EC) proposed that member states take concerted action to protect society and the environment from the consequences of floods. The EC takes the position that flooding is a natural phenomenon that cannot be prevented, but the occurrence and severity of floods are affected by human activities, such as redirecting rivers, forest clearing and developing flood plains for construction. European countries lost at least 700 lives and g25 billion in insured damages from more than 100 catastrophic floods between 1998 and 2002, according to the European Environment Agency.

The EC also sent final written warnings in mid-July to nine member states, including the UK, for not adopting national legislation to comply with the Water Framework Directive (WFD) by the December 2003 deadline. Besides the UK, the following countries received warnings: Belgium, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden. In addition, the EC sent a warning - almost four years late - to France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the UK for not meeting the December 2000 deadline set by the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. This deadline requires member countries to install proper treatment for wastewater discharges from cities and towns with populations of more than 15,000.

Keeping household water bills from rising too high is important. The EIC contends, however, that the Ofwat decision will force expenditures even higher at the next Price Review in five years. Pay now or pay more later?

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

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