The Big Pollution Question: summaries and lessons from our Round Table forum

There has been a noticeable increase in media attention on overflows over the past couple of years. Open discussions about the significant challenges facing the water industry must continue to be encouraged.

 

One of the most talked about challenges facing us in the water industry today are Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). If the press are to be believed, there is a campaign to eliminate them altogether. Following the launch of the Environment Act in 2021, the UK government continues to push for more regulation and for better performances from CSOs. The recently published Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan has set down minimum requirements for water companies to follow from now on.

CSOs are an integral part of our urban environments, with little or no control over who can connect flows to them or what can be put into them. The requirements set down by the UK government to reduce and remove CSOs, have outlined a tremendous challenge for sewerage network operators.

That being said, CSOs are one small component within what are complex sewerage networks and systems. There is no doubt that they are one of the most visible components to the public and users of rivers and waterways. However, by only focusing on them as the press and the public have been doing, there is a risk of ignoring other challenges that are presented to sewerage network operators.

In October 2022, we invited our clients to Birmingham for our fourth Round Table Forum to discuss ‘The Big Pollution Question’. The day was split into three sessions and presentations by RPS were aimed to spark talking points and discussions among the range of clients and professionals present at the event in an attempt to hopefully provide some outcomes that could be put into action.

You can download a full summary of the presentations and discussions from our Round Table Forum here (PDF)

Below is a brief summary of some of the recommended improvements that are required to meet these challenges that were that were raised throughout the day.

Greater collaboration between all stakeholders

Greater collaboration leads to better alignment of targets across water companies and stakeholders. They are all working towards unified aims of protecting the water environment, preventing flooding and providing safe water to drink. If we are serious about solving river pollution challenges, the currently siloed approaches of OfWat, DEFRA, the Environment Agency (EA) and water companies need to be combined.

Improving contact with the general public will also ensure greater collaboration and backing of proposed changes. At the moment, while the media and the public have the loudest voices, water companies are not exactly meeting them with the same level of discourse or intensity. There are times when technical descriptors for flooding, pollution and harm can be a little confusing. A more streamlined and simplified use of language could make it more relatable to larger groups of people. A more common communications approach adopted across all parts of the UK water industry could help remedy this

Better education across the board

Children, and particularly students need to have a greater appreciation of the importance of water in society. There are also fantastic career opportunities that exist within this industry. Bringing water into the national curriculum would be a good start. It’s important that we impress upon younger generations, the need to value water instead of wasting it, and the fact that our water assets should be cherished and not abused. We need young minds to bring about change in this industry, along with fresh thinking about the best methods of asset management, developing new technologies and helping make our environment more efficient and sustainable.

A better education at all levels in schools and universities can help overcome negative media reporting. We can then bring the media and the public back on side easier. This fosters greater engagement with community groups and helps embrace the role of ‘citizen science’.

We also need better education for the general public. There needs to be simpler ways of explaining the complexities of sewerage networks to the public. A good starting point in education might be turning the reports we produce such as DWMPs into documents that can be more easily understood by the public.

Diversity and inclusion in operations at all levels and across the supply chain will only lead to a fair and equitable industry to work in. This is how we can stimulate the brightest mind and harness creativity we need for sustainable outcomes, something that our industry needs.

Smarter solutions for a better future

Any solutions proposed by the UK water industry need to be more adaptive, moving away from ‘finite’ solutions for sewerage capacity. There is a massive funding challenge for ‘partial improvements and piece-meal ‘strategic options’, but these do not align to AMP spending cycles.

Another area we can all agree on is the need to move away from at-point fixing of problems and focussing more on catchment-based solutions. Blue Green infrastructure solutions or approaches can continue to be talked about; however they will only be a reality through better collaboration between agencies and better education about water and wastewater systems. This requires a realignment of the water company catchment Drainage Water Management Plans (DWMPs) and the EA catchment management plans. In the meantime, we need to make sure that the outcomes from the DWMP are used effectively. 

Final thoughts

As we continue to build greater trust and respect within all parts of our industry, new technologies and innovations can and will be adopted far more quickly, without fear of failure.

At RPS, we place a high value on the kind of conversations and solutions that are discussed in round table forums like these. We therefore pledge:

  • To drive collaboration between water companies, stakeholder and consultants.
  • To increase our presence in schools and universities.
  • To grow our water quality capabilities, continue to drive innovation and push adaptive solutions.
  • To continue to assist in delivering the challenges our industry will continue to face in the future.

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