Water Companies at Risk of Supply Shortages During Heatwave, Documents Show

Official documents have revealed that water companies in England were at risk of running out of supplies in certain parts of the country during the summer heatwave last year. The documents, obtained by Greenpeace through a freedom of information request, highlighted potential immediate supply risks in Yorkshire and the South West, according to internal memos shared between the UK government and the Environment Agency. Water levels in some reservoirs across the country reached record lows and were close to “dead storage,” where the water is so limited that it may not be treatable. Almost half of England’s reservoirs had exceptionally low levels.

These findings raise concerns about the inadequate investment in infrastructure by the privatized water companies in the UK, leaving the country vulnerable to supply shortages during future heatwaves. Additionally, approximately one-fifth of treated water supplies are lost due to leaks, and no new reservoirs have been built in over three decades. The lack of investment also raises concerns over sewage outflows closing beaches during the summer months.

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace criticized the government and water companies, accusing them of taking a dangerous gamble with the risk of drought. They pointed out that current leaky infrastructure wastes up to 1 trillion liters of water annually, and the lack of new reservoirs coupled with climate change could lead to severe water shortages in the UK.

The Environment Agency had expected water companies to submit 26 drought permits to secure supplies, but not all of these were submitted or activated. South West Water was granted a drought permit to extract more water from the Lower Tamar lake, a nature reserve on the border of Devon and Cornwall. Without this permit, the linked reservoir would have emptied and become unusable. South West Water denied any inadequacy in their preparations and stated that no customer went without supply or impact to the quality of supply due to the drought.

Southern Water also applied for a drought permit to continue using the River Test as a water source, but the permit couldn’t be approved due to concerns about its impact on fish populations. The Environment Agency was worried that Southern Water might resort to illegal abstraction to maintain customer supplies, which could pose serious environmental risks. Eventually, no drought permit was needed as river levels remained above the minimum flow, and Southern Water withdrew their application.

It is worth noting that Yorkshire Water experienced extreme drought conditions but managed to avoid interruptions to customer supplies. The company’s reservoirs were able to refill over the autumn and winter period. The Environment Agency emphasized their work in providing advice to the government, ensuring water companies implemented their drought plans, and assisting farmers in resource management during the record-breaking summer last year.