Downstream abstractors managing their risks

To what extent should downstream abstractors take responsibility for managing the risk that any water company discharges they might rely on could change?

Why the contribution is important

Many abstractors may not realise the inter-linkages in a catchment between water availability and their abstraction and specifically that they may be dependent on discharges made by water companies upstream, particularly at low flows. We are interested in your views about how much they should be aware in the future about this, and how much they should manage any risks of changing discharges affecting them.

by abstractionreform on September 05, 2014 at 11:07AM

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  • Posted by KeithWeatherhead September 07, 2014 at 11:15

    This is a difficult issue because it is important that water companies have the freedom to vary return flows to optimise short-term operations, to benefit from longer-term technology changes, etc..

    But downstream abstractors should certainly be made aware of the size and reliability of upstream discharges from water companies. They can then build this into their own drought planning. This information is also important from a water quality and food safety perspective.
  • Posted by pdixon September 08, 2014 at 02:54

    It's entirely for downstream abstactors (which might include water companies of course)to take responsibility for their own abstractions and the risks they face. The extent to which they can do this sucessfully will depend, in part, on there being good quality information available about the relationships between upstream discharges and downstream abstractions.

    What is also interesting is the potential (if any) for water companies to act tactically / strategically in the way they control their discharges, so as to affect downstream abstractions.
  • Posted by psmith September 28, 2014 at 20:05

    Abstraction licences should not be issued where water resources are based on unreliable discharges. If they are, the new abstractor needs to be given full information but no licence can guarantee that water will always be available.
  • Posted by SWW September 29, 2014 at 11:24

    All dischargers should have the freedom to vary their return flows to optimise short-term operations and to benefit from innovation. Downstream abstractors should be responsible for their own abstractions and the risk they face from changing circumstances.

    No abstraction licence can guarantee the availability of water, this risk is carried by the abstractor. It is assumed that both historical and current hydrological data is readily available in a timely manner to aid abstractors in their analysis.
  • Posted by JLNeedle September 29, 2014 at 16:46

    When contemplating a new project that would require abstraction there is a difficulty in relying on historical flow data if the historically recorded flows are influenced to any significant extent by upstream discharges that might then be allowed to decrease.

    Many new projects that would require abstraction are long term investments requiring significant works. Once the project is committed to it is hard to see what management of the risk there could be. Perhaps projects could be built with headroom but that is not likely to be efficient.
  • Posted by jimwharfe October 06, 2014 at 11:49

    We need to look at current governance arrangements for water movements and abstractions in a catchment. Improve the level of understanding for a more holistic approach to water management and ways of working in partnership arrangements that ensure trade off decisions are transparent and aimed at gaining best sustainable societal, economic and environmental benefit. Decisions on such critically important issues should not be taken in isolation.
  • Posted by EnergyUK October 06, 2014 at 15:52

    Abstractors should, and do, take responsibility for the consequences should their abstraction licence not support their intended activity, as is the case with any other business risk. In the case of some abstractors, such as power stations, this may have wider societal consequences in terms of the reliability and costs of electricity generation.

    The water company discharge change risk is one which has increased in potential significance compared to historically because of the reforms that Government has and will introduce regarding the water industry and the management of the aquatic environment. The original water acts recognised that activity based on water abstraction was exposed to the risk of upstream parties removing water (e.g. through consumptive use or transfer) upon which reliance was placed. This was addressed by providing a licensing system which protected those interests.

    Abstractors are not exposed to a risk of non-operation or changing operation for most classes of water user since, for example, reduction or change in operation of a typical water-using installation might reduce that installation’s discharge but would also reduce the installation’s abstraction by an equal or greater amount. Since the abstraction and discharge tends to be from the same river the net result is no change or an increase in water flow downstream resulting in a neutral or positive position for those downstream including the environment.

    Water Companies are very different because their infrastructure network is intended to route flow within and across catchments and results in delays between abstraction and discharge leading to depleted reaches and transfers. To date this has tended not to lead to a significant risk to abstractors through change in, or withheld, discharges since the rate of change has been modest (e.g. old sewage treatment works (STW) closing, new plant opening) though it may have had local consequences. However, if Water Companies, as a result of the various reform strands, are given the ability and incentive to introduce more dramatic changes in discharge location or timing (e.g. via storage or transfer) the risk could dramatically increase.

    We consider that Government should provide an appropriate mechanism to protect water users from this enhanced risk, though we recognise that it is necessary that Water Companies should be able to manage their portfolio of waste water assets efficiently in fulfilment of their obligations and this may from time to time result in the need to close obsolete water treatment plant and develop new ones, possibly leading to the rerouting and resizing of discharges.

    In particular, it would be helpful for Government agencies to present historic flows and future flow projections disaggregated to highlight the contributions to flows from the various sources so users would have better visibility of the future risks. We note that historical information in itself is of limited value since the characteristics of catchments, land, population water demand and water industry infrastructure arrangements have all been changing, so the historical disaggregation may not be a good guide to the future.
  • Posted by YW October 08, 2014 at 15:48

    Water companies’ have a duty to deliver an economic and efficient service to customers and to minimise impacts on the environment. These duties must take priority in any decision making. It is feasible for water companies to consider the impacts on downstream abstractors when investigating changing a discharge. However, alternative schemes that do not impact on downstream abstractors could only be implemented if they did not impact on the water company’s statutory duties or incur inappropriate costs.
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