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Our schizophrenic attitude towards water

Source: Public Sector Executive May/June 12

Justin Taberham, director of policy at CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management), discusses the urgent need for an integrated water management strategy.

We seem to have a schizophrenic attitude towards water. When it rains we all panic about floods, trying to get rid of water ‘down the drain’ as fast as possible, and when we are in the middle of a drought we wonder why on earth this can be true, because it always rains in Britain. Whenever we announce a drought, we seem to have weeks of rain, but it’s the wrong kind of rain!

The question is: Why on earth do we have such a problem with water and why can’t we manage it sustainably?

Are we, as Pink Floyd said, ‘comfortably numb’ in terms of dealing with water? Do we all drift on, assuming that someone else will sort it all out?

The key challenge we have is that we aren’t delivering Integrated Water Management (IWM), where water is managed as a precious resource and we ‘grab every drop’ and use it in the most sustainable way. Climate change, demographic change, economics and environmental legislation such as the Water Framework Directive all necessitate a more integrated approach to the management of water. We cannot expect in the future to have a reliable source of water for all our myriad uses and manage more extreme flooding – much of it pluvial – with the current disjointed management system.

The management of water in the UK is complex and is split between many partners, regulators, Government departments and others. Many different parts of the water management process are considered to be different ‘skills’ and there is little cross fertilisation of ideas and approaches.

What is Integrated Water Management (IWM)?

IWM is all about working with nature and its natural processes rather than always battling against it (often coming worse off and with large costs). We need to consider the whole system, look at sources of water and consider how we manage, use and replenish resources at present and in the longer term.

All of us can play a role in IWM, from individuals through to councils and large corporate organisations.

What measures deliver IWM?

IWM can be delivered through many different practical measures, which can include:

• Sustainable Drainage Systems (SUDS) – local authorities will play a key role in the delivery of sustainable drainage rather than a reliance on old-style drainage that takes water at high speed into the treatment system. The definition by CIRIA is ‘Surface water drainage methods that take account of water quantity, water quality and amenity issues’ and there are many sources of information on SUDS;

• Managing highways and adjacent land in a way that gathers water by the roadside or slows rain water flow, including grass verges and sunken ‘beds’ with native shrubs, and a soak away approach to gathered water;

• Mapping rainwater flow paths and intercepting these – an awareness of what happens when there is heavy rain, and consideration of simple measures to resolve ‘ponding’ in the wrong locations and encourage water gathering in suitable places. These measures may be part of Surface Water Management Plans developed by many councils;

• Managing parks, gardens and green space in a water-friendly way, such as wetland and pond creation;

• Water efficiency in homes, organisations and businesses;

• Rainwater harvesting and water storage, both on a small scale (garden water butts) or a large scale (ponds, lakes and reservoirs).

The above measures have many benefits including reduced flood risk, improved biodiversity and environmental education and cost savings (through working with natural processes and less often having to step in and manage difficult situations). Cost savings are also found by creating efficiencies between local and national projects and making more effective use of project costs. In addition, IWM is a driver for new environmental management skills and new organisational practices.

Through working as partnerships on projects with multiple benefits, IWM measures can move our thinking beyond just water to other agendas such as energy and carbon, land management and planning, waste, biodiversity, agriculture and ecosystem services.

A key barrier to delivering IWM is actually doing things fundamentally differently, rather than doing more of the same. There are many case studies that can show people what actually has worked in practice. CIWEM’s report ‘Integrated Water Management’ and its case studies are an important resource for anyone who has an interest in how we should be managing water.

How can local authorities play a role?

Local authorities can play a positive role in IWM. Most notably, they are key partners in the whole process and can work with others to benefit and help deliver IWM. For example, landholdings can be assessed as to whether parcels of land can be used to gather run-off, to attenuate flow when there are rainstorms or to act as ‘soakaways’ when it rains.

Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFA)

Lead Local Flood Authorities were formed by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 with the purpose of leading on the management of local flood risk. LLFA are normally county councils and unitary authorities. Local flood risk includes flooding from surface water, groundwater and ordinary watercourses. This involves working closely with other partners involved in flood and water management.

The formation of LLFA is a great opportunity to help deliver integrated water management. Flood management is not just about getting rid of water quickly when there are flood conditions – features such as wetlands, lakes, winter storage ponds, grassy verges and soak away zones are effective measures to reduce flood risk and run-off rates.

There are some excellent case studies of integrated water management in practice (see boxes). There are many examples worldwide that show Integrated Water Management is becoming a more common approach, but there is a long way to go to develop partnerships that have all parties working together for a common goal using multiple techniques that call upon all the skills of regulators, local authority staff, scientists, volunteers, planners, engineers and others.

Water resource planning for population growth – Ashford, UK 

In 2003, Ashford in Kent was announced as a priority area for growth. There were concerns as to whether Ashford’s water infrastructure and environment would be able to cope with the demands from new housing and industry as it was already one of the driest areas of the UK.

Ashford’s Integrated Water Strategy (AIWMS) (a water cycle strategy developed by the Environment Agency) took a strong partnership approach and shows how water infrastructure and environmental issues can be implemented alongside spatial planning. The AIWMS identified existing and future conflicts between the urban area and its water environment and infrastructure.

The strategy divided ‘water systems’ into the water environment, mains water, nonmains water (agriculture and industry) and flood risk and drainage water. The strategy considered the interactions between these four main systems to see if there were opportunities for optimisation. For example, storing flood water for use in summer, and controlling non-mains discharges to reduce the treatment burden on water companies. A significant process of stakeholder participation took place and through a series of appraisals, economic analyses and system based strategies, key interventions were identified.

Following the water cycle strategy, water cycle projects were delivered. These included a SUDS strategy, a water quality model, ‘Water Renew’ – a bio-energy/ wastewater pilot, ‘Savings on Tap’ – water efficiency with seasonal tariffs, ‘Savings for Homes’ – energy and water efficiency retrofit, a green infrastructure strategy, and a £40m upgrade of wastewater treatment works.

The benefit from using a water cycle approach is that ecosystem services are valued, it highlights the value of multi-benefit solutions (e.g. SUDS and effluent re-use) and exciting spin-off projects. The water cycle study went beyond water resource planning to consider all risks to and from the water environment and provides helpful considerations for similar water cycle studies.

Integrating Sustainable Drainage Systems (SUDS) – Portland, USA

Portland, Oregon is generally accepted as one of the leaders in SUDS implementation. In its ‘Green Streets’ scheme three design principles are followed:

• The management of storm water runoff both at the source and the surface;

• The use of plants and soil to slow, filter, cleanse, and infiltrate runoff to create cleaner water;

• The design of facilities that aesthetically enhance the community.

Green Streets shows how surface water management measures can be retrofitted into completely built-up areas. Vegetated planters and street and pavement improvements were installed to provide attractive yet functional storm water facilities that provide habitat, slowly release storm flow, filter pollutants, recharge groundwater and reduce erosion. Wherever possible multi-functionality is embraced by using SUDS to protect homes, act as traffic calming measures, serve as an educational resource and provide general amenity. Through the Clean River Rewards scheme, residents receive reduced or zero storm water charges if they manage storm water on their property.

The whole community has become involved in the scheme with a long-established (10 years) downspout disconnection programme. More than 42,000 homeowners have disconnected downspouts, removing more than 942 million gallons of storm water per year from the combined sewer system. Visit

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