Thursday, 5 September 2013

Water reform in the UK: abstraction licences on unregulated rivers

London welcomed me with all its traditional charms: it rained. All day. Unceasingly. Coming from south-eastern Australia, I wasn’t entirely sure that such a thing could actually happen, so it had all the delights of novelty.

Fortunately, because as nice as my raincoat is, it’s not really a fashion piece, London then remembered that it was having the warmest, sunniest summer since 2006, and the rest of the week was glorious – golden, warm and lots of other words not usually associated with south-east England.

England and Wales are currently pursuing a range of water resource management reforms. I was lucky enough to meet with Henry Leveson-Gower, Head of Future Water Resource Management Project in DEFRA’s Water Availability and Quality Programme. He and his team are exploring policy options to facilitate water trading, and have been examining ways to unbundle water abstraction licences in England. This is quite similar to the water reform in Australia, where water licences have been separated into a permanent right (in Victorian parlance, a water share), a temporary right (a water allocation), a water use licence (which specifies where and how water can be used, and is attached to the land on which the water will be used) and a delivery share. However, in Australia, we’ve really only been successful at unbundling water licences on regulated systems, where water is held in large storages and called out for use. In England, they are attempting to do this for unregulated river systems, where the water licence gives you the right to extract a share of the available flow. This makes unbundling more complicated, as the location on the river is much more important in determining what the share of that flow will be, and the capacity to determine physical allocations of water (temporary rights) depends on predicting the flows in the river at a given period. I’m going to be very interested to see how they solve some of these problems, and whether any of those solutions might be transferable to Australia’s unregulated systems.

One of the components of the policy reform is using smart water metering technology, so that water meters provide water use data in real time to water managers, and access to water can be linked to real-time stream flow data. Australia has also been exploring the use of such smart meters in some rural catchments, and there’s a real opportunity to share some of these lessons with the UK. For example, in Victoria, Melbourne Water, in partnership with the Victorian State Government, have been piloting the use of smart meters in several of their rural catchments. I’m hoping that we can encourage policy makers everywhere to get better at sharing and learning from these sorts of projects.

Interestingly, there are some environmental charities (such as RSPB) who are purchasing land to restore and protect wetlands. In some cases, this includes a licence to extract water from the river to recreate flooding in the wetland. These environmental groups will also be able to trade their water under the new arrangements, and it will be interesting to see whether more environmental organizations enter this space and become environmental water managers in the UK. 

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