Water leaks and hosepipe bans - are the water companies to blame?
Summer 2006 saw hosepipe bans in many areas of South East England. Astonishing amounts of water are lost to leakage before reaching our houses, so are hosepipe bans the fault of the water companies?
How water is supplied in the UK
Water is supplied by private companies throughout the UK, and you cannot choose or change your water supplier. The water companies are regulated by Ofwat, which sets water prices and tries to make sure the companies provide a decent service. The Ofwat website has lots of useful information about water supplies.
If you have a water meter you only pay for the water you use. If you don't have a meter your water bill is calcuated based on the ‘rateable value' of your house. This is an assessment of the annual rental value of the house, made by the local authority sometime before 1990.
Your water company should help you decide whether it will save you money to switch to a water meter, and should install one for free. You can change your mind within a year and go back to an unmetered water supply.
How bad are the leaks in our water supply?
Amazingly, more than a fifth of the water supply is lost to leakage before reaching our homes, due to broken and leaking pipes. Most of this is lost in ‘distribution pipes', which carry the water up to our property, and some of it is lost in ‘supply pipes' which carry water from the edge of our property to our homes.
Repair of distribution pipes is the responsibility of the water company, while supply pipe repairs are actually the responsibility of the property owner. However, many companies offer free leak detection and pipe repair, in a bid to conserve water at this level.
Water leakage dropped between 1995 and 1999, mainly due to reduced leakage in distribution pipes, but leakage has remained constant since then.
Ofwat now sets water companies targets for leakages, based on the ‘economic level of leakage' (ELL). This is basically the level of leakage where further repairs would cost more than the value of the water saved.
Most water companies are now meeting these targets, though Thames water continues to have major problems with leakage. Ofwat have the power to fine Thames, but have instead enforced a legally binding undertaking from them to spend extra time and money repairing ancient pipes.
A waste of drinking water
One reason leaks are a bad thing is that this water has already been treated to make it suitable for drinking. Losing this treated water is a huge waste of money. Using treated water for things like gardening also seems like a waste, so using a water butt to collect rainfall reduces unnecessary water treatments as well as reducing your personal water consumption from the mains.
Droughts and hosepipe bans
In the Thames region, rainfall was below average levels for most of 2005 and until September 2006. This was actually one of the worst droughts in the last 100 years and led to hosepipe bans in much of South East England.
However, the situation could have been worse - only three companies enforced the more restrictive ‘drought order'. In the last 5 years water companies have used TV adverts to promote water conservation in the home (such as turning off taps while brushing your teeth), during times of drought. This seems to have effectively lowered the demand on the water system without the need for extreme measures.
It has become clear that the rules of hosepipe bans need modernising. Apparently you can hose down a patio or fill a swimming pool during a hosepipe ban, but you cannot water your garden or an allotment.A government consultation on this is underway in 2007.
The autumn/winter period of 2006-7 has been wetter than average, reservoirs are fairly full, and a hosepipe ban for summer 2007 is not anticipated. However, April was incredibly dry so water shortages cannot be ruled out.
Water companies to blame for hosepipe bans?
Unless you live in the Thames water area, it will probably be fruitless to blame your water company next time a drought leads to a hosepipe ban. While a huge amount of treated water is lost through leakage during distribution by water companies, they are reaching their Ofwat leakage targets, and are unlikely to spend any more money on reducing leakage.
Their money may be more effectively spent promoting water conservation in the home. A general increase in environmental awareness, along with a promised change in the exact rules of hosepipe bans, could mean gardeners will suffer less during times of water shortage in the future.