Water Rationing in West Somerset – How Soon?

Wimbleball Reservoir mid-October 2022
Photograph by Paul Scullion

“No Water Rationing for the Foreseeable Future.” That was Julian Welbank’s answer to the question when he spoke to Quantock Eco on 25th November.

He described the problem Wessex Water faces as how to keep fresh water flowing for an ever-increasing population demanding more water while protecting and enhancing our water environment.

Julian Welbank, water consultant to the West Country Water Resources Group and Wessex Water, explored the delicate balance between our demand for water, the company’s responsibility to keep it clean and delivered to every home and protect it from the impact of climate change.

Wessex Water provides 275 million litres of water a day to 1.3 million customers across the South West of England, which is most of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire.  In 1961 the average person used 85 litres a day.  Now thanks to many factors such as improved sanitation, most of us use around 140 litres a day to take a bath (80-110 litres) or shower (50 litres), drink water, tea or coffee, flush the toilet, wash our clothes, the dishes, the car and maybe the dog.

Source: Ofwat

Our population is increasing rapidly.  There are 67 million people in the country, 30 million more than 100 years ago and 4 million more than in the last census.  We now use 14 billion litres of water a day on average.  To meet demand in England and Wales and reduce unsustainable abstractions we will need a staggering 17 -18 billion litres of water a day by 2050.  He stressed each of us needs to reduce our usage to 110 litres a day by then.

Source: Ofwat

In Somerset the majority of our water comes from reservoirs like Clatworthy and Wimbleball.  In the Wessex Water region, the split is 25% surface water to 75% “groundwater” from aquifers, which provide a vast underground store of water.  Across the rest of England the opposite is true, with greater dependence on rivers and reservoirs.  Thames Water aware of possibly not being able to meet demand has built a desalination plant to service London when necessary.

Last year drought tested Wessex Water’s resilience as evaporation and high demand sucked the water out of our reservoirs.  Wimbleball was reduced to 23% capacity in October but is already back to 38% following recent rains.  Welbank predicted it will be back to normal by February 2023, even if it continues to be warmer and drier than usual.

He pointed to the excellent work water companies undertake in managing leaks from our pipes which are caused by a number of factors such as pressure surges, the effect of icy freezing weather, ground movement and water seeping away through joints. Leakage currently ranges from about 75 to 150 l/property/day – at the top end equivalent to having one extra person in every home in the UK.

Julian Welbank was asked whether it was possible for water to be on a national grid so that the South could benefit from excess water in the North.  He replied that this is just not feasible because it is too expensive to pump water up and over the many hills and ridges.  Each region is developing its own grid to make the best use of water locally. 

Ian Myers of the Environment Agency summarised Julian Welbank’s talk saying we cannot take water for granted anymore.  If climate change was a shark, where it will bite us first will be our water supply.  Wars are already being fought over water supply in other nations. 

Climate change has affected our use of water and our awareness of pollution from chemicals used by industry and farming.  If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of fresh water we must safeguard it.  Each one of us needs to meet the challenge of finding ways to use water more sparingly.

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