Water, water everywhere… but only if you have a licence

It’s hard to remember a time when water was splashed across the headlines as frequently as it has been recently. Floods, droughts, plastics, day zero, nationalisation, privatisation, open market, self-supply…  Water is one hot topic. But there’s one subject that hasn’t been making waves – and it needs to.

Abstraction licences. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting. Indeed, it’s not particularly exciting – at least not in the context of front page news – but businesses across the UK could find themselves on the receiving end of the wrong kind of headline if they don’t sit up and take notice.

In January this year, the government launched an overhaul of its approach to allowing businesses to abstract water directly from groundwater, rivers or tidal flows. Under new regulations, the Environment Agency will make full use of its existing powers to review and amend abstraction licences. The goal is to better protect the environment, adapt to the pressures of increasing water demand and climate change in the long term, to raise standards and to modernise the current (paper-based) service.

The Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales plan to take a catchment focused approach, bringing together the abstractors and catchment groups to develop locally appropriate solutions to ease existing pressures and to prepare for the future by reducing the impacts of abstraction and improving access to water. It should pave the way for the introduction of more flexible conditions that support the efficient use, storage and trading of water in line with regional needs.

Barry Millar, Operations Director at independent consultancy Waterscan thinks this is a step in the right direction. “Lawful abstractions are only likely to be significantly curtailed or refused if serious damage to the environment is at stake so, in my opinion, implementing this initiative can’t come soon enough. We expect that the approach will be risk-based, prioritising the licences that are likely to have the greatest impact on the environment: good news for those of us concerned with reducing water consumption.”

Until now, many businesses have been regarded as licence-exempt. But this will not be the case moving forward: any operation taking more than 20,000 litres of water a day directly from surface or groundwater sources now requires an abstraction licence to remain on the right side of the law. Lifting exemptions relating to purpose and geography, government officials say, will ‘bring all significant abstraction under regulation and create a fairer system where no group of abstractors will be able to expand at the cost of another group, or the environment’.

For water-intensive industries and those operating in water-scarce catchments, it’s time to get involved and the sooner the better:  licence applications must be made within the two year window between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2019. There will be no restrictions on abstractions (provided they are in line with previous quantities extracted until December 2017) while applications are reviewed and new licences issued. However, enforcement action may be taken in the event of non-compliance with the requirements and timescales of this initiative.

If the prospect of a potential fine isn’t incentive enough, consider the associated opportunities. Barry Millar continued: “Taking a proactive approach to abstraction while embracing water conservation technologies could enable organisations to take a leading role in water sustainability. Indeed, this may be the legislation to finally overturn many of the perceived obstacles relating to water re-use. Many southern European countries, no strangers to water shortages, have an established regulatory framework to stimulate the implementation of water re-use schemes but that has yet to be seen here in the UK. Recent media attention around Cape Town’s ‘day zero’ has helped to bring the topic to the fore. Although it’s unfortunate that it has taken an impending crisis on this scale to draw attention to the world’s water supplies, I’m hopeful that the research, education and innovation arising will have long term positive impacts.”

That is not to say that there aren’t already excellent innovations available for commercial organisations looking to capitalise on the opportunity to prioritise water as part of their sustainability strategies. Consider, for example, rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling systems which treat water through ultra-filtration membranes before feeding it back into the property for non-potable purposes like vehicle washing, toilet flushing, laundry, cooling systems and irrigation.

Taking the concept one step further, Intellistorm®, will not only reduce water consumption but create flood resilience. The latest water re-use technology to come to market, it works by combining rainwater harvesting and attenuation systems with intelligent data gathering using live weather forecast data.  Intellistorm® captures and releases storm water for reuse in full compliance with stringent local planning and discharge requirements. Its manufacturers expect it to reduce site water consumption and discharge to drain by as much as 40%. Furthermore, its deployment eliminates as much as £100,000 from the cost of integrating water re-use to a new build facility and it requires no additional equipment footprint or civil excavation.

For large scale operations with significant water usage, considerable water cost and consumption savings are there for the taking.