Water company chiefs met online with environment minister Rebecca Pow yesterday (8th September), along with representatives from Ofwat, the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England, Water UK, the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) and the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI).
The minister challenged the water companies to do more to protect the environment and safeguard water supplies. She wants the water companies to do more in three key areas:
Storm overflows: The volumes of sewage discharged into rivers and other waterways in extreme weather must be reduced, the minister said. A new taskforce has been set up between the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), the EA, Ofwat and Water UK to set out proposals for reducing the frequency and volumes of these incidents.
Chalk streams: Chalk streams, characterised by their clear waters and rich wildlife, continue to be at risk due to low flows, poor water quality and unsustainable abstraction by water companies. The minister urged water companies to improve chalk stream catchments and asked them to join her at a Chalk Stream summit she will host on 16th October 2020.
Water resources and leakage: While improvements on leakage rates have been made, the minister reiterated the government’s expectation for leakage rates to be halved by 2050. A new national framework was published in March 2020 by the Environment Agency setting out the action needed to safeguard water supplies.
Later this month the Environment Agency will publish its annual report on water companies’ environmental performance.
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “Water companies need to take their environmental obligations seriously and this impetus must come from the top.
“Despite investment from the industry, the damage inflicted on our environment – our rivers, lakes, streams and the wildlife that rely on them – is still far too great. Today we discussed a number of issues I feel strongly about, including storm overflows, and how we can work together to see much more ambitious improvements.
“This country’s green recovery from coronavirus can only happen if water companies step up and play their part.”
While Rebecca Pow has been at Defra for only a year, she has plenty of relevant background experience. She comes from West Country farming stock and studied rural environment studies at Wye College, University of London.
Environment Agency director Harvey Bradshaw said: “Our environmental targets are ambitious and we are challenging water companies to go faster and further on environment, leakage and protecting supplies. Water companies have a key role to safeguard our water environment and we will regulate them as a modern regulator should; rewarding excellence and sanctioning behaviour that harms the environment. In this way we will be working with them to drive up standards including through our new Taskforce on storm overflows.
“Everybody shares a crucial responsibility to protect the environment for future generations, and we will continue to work with all parties to deliver much-needed improvements.
Ofwat strategy director John Russell said: “We welcome the challenge to water companies set by Minister Pow and are committed to continuing to work with government and other independent regulators on the future direction for the water industry, particularly the focus on environmental priorities. These sector wide discussions are crucial for setting targets which can drive long term resilience and broader improvements to water customers, such as the progress water companies are reporting on leakage and the industry’s pledge to achieve net zero by 2030.”
Rivers campaigner Feargal Sharkey (and former frontman of The Undertones) tweeted: “Just what’s needed, another task force, that’ll fix it.”