Part 1: Water resources planning methods

Water resources planning has been facing something of an uncertain future over the last few years, but recent progress by regulators and government have blown away some of the fog to reveal a clearer view of the future plans for managing our most precious resource.

This is the first of three pieces that summarise our thoughts on this changing landscape, and focuses on the draft water resources planning guidelines were published for consultation in November 2015[1].  The new guideline (and supporting technical methods) will be applied in the next round of water resources management plans, to be published in March 2019.  This may seem a long way off, but most companies are already starting work on their plans which will need to be technically complete as draft plans towards the end of 2017.

The previous version of this obscure-sounding document provided detailed guidance on the technical methods water companies should use to determine their available water supplies and the demand placed on them by customers – i.e. how they planned to keep the taps running.  It ran to 187 pages and detailed every technical nook and cranny of the water resources planning process.

In stark contrast, the draft guideline published late last year came in at just 33 pages and is more framework than guideline, setting out key principles rather than minute detail.   This reflects water company feedback that the guideline should be more flexible and shorter; plus Defra’s Smarter Environmental Regulation Review (SERR), which aims to reduce regulatory burdens whilst increasing the effectiveness of delivering environmental benefits.

The fundamental principal of the new guideline is to provide greater flexibility for practitioners to select technical approaches that suit the nature and scale of the planning problem they face.

These methods are now contained in supporting technical guidance, published by UKWIR.  This includes a manual on methods for forecasting household consumption, written by Artesia.  There is also guidance on forecasting population, properties and household occupancy, decision making (providing alternatives to the ‘Economics of Balancing Supply and Demand’ process), and risk-based planning.  This latter guidance details how companies could move away from the traditional scenario-based forecasts, to more sophisticated probabilistic methods.

So one size no longer fits all.  There will be stronger links between long-term water resources plans and drought management, and a greater focus on resilience.  There is also recognition that historic weather patterns are no longer a dependable basis for planning future water resources, and that stochastic approaches to water resources modelling may be required.

Artesia have begun working with water companies to pilot a range of stochastic water resources methods, and are considering how climate change uncertainty can be incorporated into this probabilistic approach.

The consultation period on the draft has now closed and we await the response with interest.  Our view is that practitioners generally welcome this new, lighter-touch regulation.  It suits companies who have significant planning problems and the appetite to apply more complex methods; as well as those where there are fewer issues, where complicated analyses are unnecessary.

Early consultation with regulators will be essential to agree which pathway is appropriate and specialist support will be needed in some areas.  Overall though, this appears to be a welcome change.