In December 2013, Defra and the Welsh Government ran a consultation on proposals for reforming the water abstraction management system. In the consultation we explained that some abstractors use all of the water they take from rivers and aquifers while others only consume some of what they take and return (discharge) the rest to rivers or to the sea. In some rivers during low flows discharges can account for up to 60% of that flow so can be very important both for the environment and for abstractors taking water from a river.

Water companies are by far the most significant dischargers, accounting for over half of all discharges made in England and Wales.  They also pose a particular challenge as their discharges are only remotely linked to abstractions which means that regulating as part of abstraction permissions as we propose to do for other dischargers would not be straightforward. Water companies which have sewerage responsibilities receive waste water from homes and businesses, and also capture a lot of rainwater run-off, treat it to a high standard and discharge large volumes of treated water from waste water treatment works to rivers. The discharges need to meet specific water quality standards set out by the Environment Agency / Natural Resources Wales on the water companies to protect the environment and other legitimate users from the potentially polluting effects of the discharge.

Water companies may alter where they discharge and reduce or even stop discharging this water altogether and for instance, put it in a reservoir or even use it to irrigate land. This could be for a number of reasons. For example they may choose to divert their returned water to another treatment works in a different location that has more modern and efficient treatment processes. As more pressure is placed on water availability another driver could be to make better use of discharges as a water resource by re-using it or selling it to another water company that needs the water. In both cases, the water would be highly treated before coming back into the public water supply or being discharged to the water environment.

So because discharges can be changed, this water cannot currently be relied upon to always be there for downstream abstractors. In the consultation we asked for ideas on how best water company discharges should be regulated to provide reliable water for downstream abstraction without impacting on water quality objectives or constraining flexibility in water management.

In the summary of the consultation responses published by Defra and Welsh Government on 9 July we explained that many respondents felt unqualified to provide suggestions for regulation, however the majority of water companies agreed that the value of water company discharges to river systems should be recognised in a reformed system and that more work was needed to consider this further.

What we have been doing

We have been:

  • investigating the current and future scope for changing water company discharge patterns and the drivers for future change;
  • considering options to maximise the value of water company discharges in a fair and proportionate manner.

What we would appreciate your help with

We would like your help in developing and assessing our approach.

You can read further information about discharges in: supporting information for digital dialogue on water company discharges.

We want to make this as much of a conversation as possible.  We have posted six ideas below on which we would welcome your views.  Depending on the amount of views posted, we may summarise the views at different points during the discussion. We will also respond as far as possible to questions for clarification and respond if we think information has been posted that is not correct to avoid misconceptions developing.

Have your say

This online discussion will run for five weeks up until 10 October 2014 to give as many people as possible the opportunity to contribute their views.

The forum will enable you to rate and comment on ideas suggested. This will help us to understand the level of support for different views. All views are welcome and we ask that you are courteous to other users.

To take part in this online discussion, you will need to complete a simple registration process by going to the register link at the top of the page. When you register you will be required to provide a username and email address. The username will be made public along with the comments made in the Dialogue. Please consider this when choosing a username.

What happens next?

We will summarise all the comments made on the ideas, and consider all of them as part of our work on developing the final policy option during 2015.

8 ideas