After 40 years of debate and controversy, the idea of large-scale water transfer in the UK must still be considered a feasible future option, a panel of experts have claimed.

At the second of three meetings on the future of water organised by the Engineering the Future alliance, representatives from two water companies, the Environment Agency and two independent consultants looked into the engineering, environmental and economic impact of moving water around the country from areas of plenty to places where supply is under greater stress.

Trevor Bishop, Head of Water Resources at the Environment Agency, told the audience that the Agency was open-minded to the future movement of water over long distances and that they would work with other regulators and industry to remove barriers which may constrain balanced and objective planning, ensuring the most appropriate schemes can become reality. He said that the Environment Agency wants to see all potential options assessed including schemes from the River Severn to the Thames, as required from the recent public inquiry.

Yvette de Garis, Head of Environment and Quality Strategy and Regulation at Thames Water, which has traditionally guarded against large-scale movement of water, also said that transfer was an option, explaining that Thames Water’s role is to look at all the options and decide on the best way to meet a future deficit. She added that there was no “silver bullet” and that future water supplies would be met with both demand management and additional resources, whether or not that meant transfer schemes.

The history of the Severn / Thames water transfer debate was explored by John Lawson FREng. He described how the possibility of moving water between the two rivers via pipelines or canals was debated in the 1970s. The subject was raised once again in the mid ‘90s before the current most recent revival of the issue in the past five years. He said that over the years, feasibility studies had been carried out but practical actions were never taken forward.

Mr Lawson also discussed the environmental issues affecting such schemes, especially the differing ecologies of the Severn and Thames rivers and how mixing their waters had always been a concern. He also said it was a myth that water was ‘too heavy’ to transfer effectively and that energy use in doing so was not a significant factor in the case of the Severn to Thames transfer.

William Robinson, Water Resources Manager at Essex and Suffolk Water, provided a case study on the current and future transfer activities between the Ely Ouse and Essex and how this had been running since 1972. He said that the volume of water abstracted from rivers and transferred to other rivers and reservoirs was strictly controlled using a model derived from real data. He described the Company’s Abberton Scheme which includes increasing the capacity of Abberton Reservoir by 58%. He said that the scheme will ensure that customer demand is met over the company’s statutory planning horizon and that it has no significant effects on the water quality, biodiversity, recreation or socio-economics of the region.

Professor Christopher Binnie FREng, presented the case for water transfer pointing out that the Thames basin was currently using 55% of its effective rainfall, while in Wales this figure is just 3%. It is this huge imbalance, he said, that proved that moving water to areas of water stress such as the South East was a good option. He also suggested that water companies could trade water surpluses between one another, but that current legislation proved a disincentive to do so.

The event Chair, Professor Roger Falconer FREng, said: “Large scale water transfer in England and Wales has long been debated and it is a subject which stirs passions on all sides.

“This event was a good opportunity to look again at the subject and to hear the differing views on offer. It is clear that while water transfer may not be everyone’s preferred solution to water demand in coming years, it is an option which will be seriously considered by all parties.”

Presentations to download:

  1. Christopher Binnie FREng FICE FCIWEM)
    The case for water transfer (1.20 MB)
  2. William Robinson, Water Resources Manager, Essex and Suffolk Water Company
    Case study: the Ely Ouse to Essex transfer (2.25 MB)
  3. John Lawson FREng FICE FCIWEM
    Case study: the proposed Severn to Thames transfer (3.56 MB)
  4. Yvette de Garis, Head of Environment and Quality Strategy and Regulation, Thames Water
    The role of water transfer in Thames Water’s future resource planning (3.45 MB)
  5. Trevor Bishop, Head of Water Resources, Environment Agency
    The Environment Agency’s view on water transfer (1.07 MB)

Watch the video from this event

Download the programme for this event (536.11 KB)

The third event in the ‘Engineering the future of water’ series, ‘Behaviour change and demand management’, will take place on 22 November.

Notes for editors

Engineering the Future

Engineering the Future is a broad alliance of the engineering institutions and bodies which represent the UK’s 450,000 professional engineers. We provide independent expert advice and promote understanding of the contribution that engineering makes to the economy, society and to the development and delivery of national policy.

The leadership of Engineering the Future is drawn from the following institutions:

The Engineering Council; EngineeringUK; The Institution of Chemical Engineers; The Institution of Civil Engineers; The Institution of Engineering and Technology; The Institution of Mechanical Engineers; The Institute of Physics; The Royal Academy of Engineering.

For more information please contact

Ed Holmes on 0207 766 0655