Last reviewed 18 February 2022

Plans to protect England’s water environment are currently being consulted on. Laura King outlines some of the proposed measures, and how businesses can prepare for future changes.

Water is essential to humanity, and all industries and businesses rely on water to some degree. At the most basic level, every organisation has a duty to provide washroom facilities and clean drinking water; for other firms it is a vital resource that is integral to the operations or services provided.

The water we use is taken from aquatic ecosystems, such as rivers, lakes, and groundwater. However, the overuse of water, and pollution from modern processes and lifestyles means that these ecosystems are in increasingly poor condition. Already, many of our sources of supply are over-stretched: in 2017, the volume of water abstracted was found to be unsustainable in 28% of groundwater bodies and 18% of surface water bodies in England; and the latest assessment of water bodies found that only 16% in England were in “good” condition.

To add to a difficult situation, factors such as climate change, increasing development and more water-intensive lifestyles are continuing to pile pressure on systems that are already under threat. Indeed, according to the Environment Agency, by 2050 many areas in England will face significant water deficits.

With such pressures, it is not only water-intensive industries that need to think about water use; even businesses with low consumption will need to act as the impacts of poor quality, overstretched water resources come into play.

Protecting water through River Basin Management Planning

One way in which the UK works to protect its water environment is through River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) which the Government is legally required to produce. Through these plans, the UK’s water environment is assessed and managed through a six-yearly cycle of planning. What’s the objective? To prevent deterioration and achieve ‘good’ status in 100% of the UK’s freshwater ecosystems by 2027 at the very latest.

Everyone has a role to play in protecting water quality, and the required measures outlined in the plans do impact on business. For example, they are used by the authorities to outline limits on environmental permits and to make planning decisions.

RBMP consultation

Currently, the Government is consulting on the draft 2021–2027 River Basin Management Plans for England. (The Scottish Government published its plan in December 2021, and Northern Ireland and the Welsh Government have published the consultation outcomes to the RBMPs for which they are responsible for.)

The consultation ends in April 2022 and builds on two previous consultations that focused on how stakeholders should work together, and the water management issues that exist and measures needed to address them.

The draft plans outline the current mechanisms that are being proposed to manage water quality. Some of the mechanisms most relevant for business include the following.

  • Setting legally-binding targets (as required by the Environment Act 2021) to address some of the challenges within river basins. One area being considered is setting targets that will improve water levels and flows by reducing water demand in both domestic and commercial settings.

  • Improving accountability to reduce contamination of surface water drains, and regulatory campaigns to prevent pollution and tackle mis-connections to surface water drains.

  • A greater focus on sustainable drainage systems, and “blue” and “green” infrastructure (new green infrastructure standards are due to be published by Natural England in 2022).

  • Delivery of the changes outlined as part of the UK’s Abstraction Plan (for example, modernising the service by integrating abstraction into Environmental Permitting Regulation and adopting a stronger regulatory and compliance regime).

Additional measures

Although many of the above mechanisms are not new, businesses should also take note of some of the additional measures which are under consideration. These are not yet set in stone, but as the confirmed measures are unlikely to deliver the changes needed by 2027, some of these other options will fall into place.

Examples of the measures waiting in the wings include the following.

  • More public engagement to help raise awareness of the impact of chemicals on the environment.

  • Tighter water efficiency standards for white goods.

  • Incentivising water efficiency, for example grants for capital expenditure.

  • Publicising areas where water supplies are dependent on unsustainable abstraction licences and informing companies and planning authorities that development cannot use these water supplies until alternative water resource development is in place.

Managing water

Water scarcity and pollution are already impacting on the regulatory landscape. For example, Defra have already committed to mandatory water labelling and setting stricter water use targets for new development. It is not inconceivable that, like carbon, further targets and regulation will eventually be in the pipeline, and that customers will demand businesses meet higher standards. Here, businesses have an opportunity to get ahead and to start considering water as part of their organisation.

Tackling water use starts with understanding an individual site, but – in its fullest sense – means understanding water within the wider environmental context. Considering water holistically is known as water stewardship, which the Alliance for Water Stewardship defines as “the use of water that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial”. This approach means that water use is not only used efficiently, but also sustainably within the context of the catchment and other shared risks to the water environment. Approaching water use in this way will ultimately mean that the business becomes more resilient to water challenges down the line.

Becoming a good water steward and improving resilience involves several steps, outlined below.

  1. Understanding water use and water pathways: At the most basic level, the first step is to understand what water is being used, when it is being used, where, and how it is disposed of within an individual site or organisation.

  2. Taking action: The next step is to create a water management plan that identifies improvements to be made. This can include actions relating to efficiency as well as actions around pollution control. For example, checking that there are no misconnections (where items such as dishwashers are incorrectly plumbed into surface water drains) or reviewing whether surface water runoff from site could be causing pollution.

  3. Understanding the wider context: This phase involves understanding water use within the wider context of the business activity. For example, how much water is used within the value chain? Looking at water as part of a lifecycle analysis is known as the water footprint and can be assessed using standards such as ISO 14046: Environmental management – Water footprint – Principles, requirements and guidelines.

  4. Understanding the wider impact: A key part of water stewardship is understanding the wider context of water use and disposal. How does the business’ use of water affect others and the environment? To truly develop business resilience, businesses need to work with others to understand these wider challenges and commit to a water stewardship plan. Large water users can use the Alliance for Water Stewardship Standard to implement change on a catchment scale. More locally, NGOs such as the Rivers Trust can help businesses act on water stewardship ambitions.

Summary

Water is a precious commodity that is increasingly under threat.

Currently, RBMPs are being consulted on. The measures outlined in the final plans will impact on how the UK’s water resources are managed to improve the health of the water environment.

Businesses can start to plan for future changes by implementing measures to become a good water steward. This starts with understanding and managing water use on site, before understanding water within the wider context of a product or catchment.