The government have told water companies in the United Kingdom that they must do more to protect the environment and safeguard UK water supplies following a meeting with Environment Minister Rebecca Pow.
Chief executives from 15 water companies and representatives from Ofwat, Water UK, the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Consumer Council for Water and the Drinking Water Inspectorate were in all attendance.
Ms Pow stressed that the government wanted water companies to tackle three key environmental areas to improve their performance at a time when climate change, extreme weather events and population growth are a real threat to the supplies.
A reduction in storm overflows where water companies discharge sewage into rivers was made a priority. The volume of waste discharged into natural waterways during storms and extreme weather needs to be addressed with current levels unsustainable.
Ms Pow revealed that a new taskforce set up between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and Water UK would meet regularly to set out clear proposals to cut the frequency of storm overflow incidents.
Legally binding targets would also be enshrined in law by the government when it brings the Environment Bill to the Parliament.
Water companies were told more needs to be done to protect chalk streams, which are at risk from poor water quality and unsustainable abstraction of water.
Chalk streams are vital for the prosperity of wildlife and Ms Pow asked those present to join her at a special summit in mid-October to look at ways of improving chalk stream catchments.
The Environment Minister also said that water resources needed to be safeguarded and leakage tackled. The Environment Agency had set out what must be done to safeguard supplies through a national framework document published in March, calling upon government, water companies, business and the public to do more to save water.
Leakage meanwhile is a problem that water companies have long been aware of. They are currently working towards a 16 percent reduction in leakage levels by 2025 and a 50 percent reduction by 2050 on the near 3 billion litres lost every day in 2020.
In July, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said that there was a real danger that leaking pipes could cause taps to run dry in the UK by 2040.
A scathing report spared no party; not only were water companies criticised, but so too Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for having “taken their eye off the ball” when it comes to reducing water loss and repairing leaks.
One month later and it was revealed that leakage in 2019-20 had been at its lowest level since records began in the mid-90s thanks to the adoption of leak detection systems and innovative pipe repair kits, but more quite clearly needs to be done.
Ms Pow said of the meeting: “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.”
“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.”
Ofwat’s John Russell said: “We welcome the challenge to water companies 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.”
The meeting came as a precursor to the Environment Agency’s annual report on water companies’ environmental performance, due to be published before the end of September.