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Cambridge water crisis: To avoid drought, we must all work together - fast

The River Cam - but without the locks, the river would be a ‘trickle’, Cllr Kate Thornburrow
The River Cam - but without the locks, the river would be a ‘trickle’, Cllr Kate Thornburrow

Two immediate actions must be taken to avoid catastrophic water shortages, say authorities and organisations in the region including developers, water suppliers and politicians.

With summers in the Cambridge region increasingly hot and dry, the Environment Agency has warned of an imminent drought, as the Cambridge Independent reported last week. Indeed East Anglia moved to ‘drought’ status in May 2019, following three years of exceptionally dry weather across the south east.

The most obvious – and urgent – first step is for all homes to have a water meter installed and consumers to pay for their usage on a per-litre basis. In 1990 it became compulsory for all new homes to be fitted with a water meter, but the retrofit option has been taken up by fewer than half of UK households.

“We believe that water meters are the fairest way to charge for water,” says Dan Clark, water resources and environment manager at Cambridge Water. “We’d always encourage our customers to switch to a meter, as you only pay for the water you use and it helps people save water too.

“Our customers have told us that they prefer us to focus on reducing demand rather than building large-scale new water supply sources like reservoirs. So that means reducing leakage, offering water efficiency advice and education, and more water meters. We’re about to start a new round of engagement with customers to understand if these views have shifted.”

The second step is to ensure that new-builds feature plumbing systems that use rain and grey water to reduce household consumption. Progress has been made: the UK average new-build aims for 140 litres per person per day (pppd) and in Cambridge the current target is 110 litres pppd – but it’s still not enough.

Cllr Kate Thornburrow, Cambridge city councillor for Trumpington and executive councillor for planning policy and open spaces, said: “We’re committed to development that respond to the climate and biodiversity emergencies by including challenging targets on energy use, water conservation and car use right from the outset.”

Athena, a development by Hill at Eddington, has achieved 80 litres per person per day using rain water and grey water
Athena, a development by Hill at Eddington, has achieved 80 litres per person per day using rain water and grey water

Developers – although not all – are racing to deliver 80 litres pppd, and indeed this has been achieved at Eddington, Ninewells off Babraham Road and at Virido in Trumpington.

Athena, part of the Eddington development delivered by Hill, has a keen focus on water use.

“Water conservation has always played a very important role when designing and building our homes,” a Hill spokesperson told the Cambridge Independent. “The properties at Athena include cutting-edge sustainable technology which seek to cut water consumption, as well as energy and carbon emissions.

“Features such as water restrictors on taps and showers, dual flush toilets with rain water recycling, energy efficient appliances and water butts, all ensure residents are able to achieve a water consumption of 80 litres per person per day. However, hitting this target does also depend on the individual water consumption habits of the residents which we, of course, cannot control.”

The plumbing involved at Athena is pretty straightforward.

“The rainwater is cleaned and treated before it is plumbed back into homes for non-potable water uses, which include toilet flushing, use in washing machines and irrigation. Because the water is plumbed in to the specific appliances and utilities, you wouldn’t even know it is grey water. ”

A spokesperson from the Eddington team added: “Within the industry, the Eddington water management scheme is recognised to be exemplary practice.

“The University of Cambridge is the master developer of the North West Cambridge Development (Phase 1 is called Eddington) and through its outline planning consent made a series of commitments to deliver a highly sustainable development. It is recognised by all parties – council, water companies and the principal developer – that water management in the region is important so they were aligned in their desire to relieve this pressure where possible.

“As part of the planning permission, water management at Eddington was considered at an urban scale and takes into account the context of the site which includes both mitigation of the localised flood risk as well as water conservation – this has resulted in a large-scale rainwater harvesting system through its sustainable urban drainage system. Substituting rainwater for non-potable water uses such as toilet flushing and watering plants enables the ambitious target to be set. The university selects developers – like Hill – to deliver sites that meet the standards expected of the scheme.”

Environment Agency water map shows Cambridge is in trouble
Environment Agency water map shows Cambridge is in trouble

Plumbing rainwater and water from washing machines and dishwashers is one achievement, but Hill’s ambition even goes beyond 80 litres pppd – to zero-carbon housing.

“We have recently formed a joint venture partnership with Bioregional Homes to build zero-carbon, affordable homes that are for sale to people local to the developments. The partnership will embrace Bioregional Homes’ One Planet Living principles – building homes that are zero carbon, from sustainable materials, using modern methods of construction in developments where water conservation and sustainability are encouraged.

“We are currently focusing on a number of already identified projects across our operating area where we are keen to develop a range of inspirational house types which will be both energy and water efficient.”

So - Hill ‘gets it’. But what about other developers? The fact is water companies have only limited powers to get consumers to change.

“Water companies are not able to impose limits on customers’ use of water, only restrict certain types of water-using activities,” says Dan Clark. “These restrictions can only be imposed in extreme circumstances such as a prolonged drought or other emergency.

“Similarly, we can’t impose limits or standards on developers. The water efficiency standards for new buildings are set by local authorities, working to national building development guidelines. So we are working collaboratively with all stakeholders to ensure that we can resolve the longer-term challenges sustainably.

“We do, however, have a duty to promote the efficient use of water, which we do for our customers by offering advice, free devices and education around water use and the benefits of switching to a meter.

“We also offer discounts on charges for new developments which are built to better levels of water efficiency. We make representations on local plans to urge that new developments are built to these higher standards, and for this to be a standard planning requirement.”

The focus now is on the new residential development proposed near Cambridge North station. A draft planning framework has been published for the “new low-carbon city district” in north-east Cambridge, where 8,000 new homes and 20,000 new jobs are planned, along with shops, restaurants, and community and cultural facilities.

“We know there’s a water issue in this region,” Cllr Thornburrow reiterated. “It’s one of the driest regions in the country and there’s a lot more buildings coming out in the future. As local planners we want the city to be an exemplar for the best use of water.

“The councils have commissioned an integrated water management study to provide a robust evidence base for development of the Greater Cambridge Local Plan. The study will consist of an outline and detailed water cycle study, looking at water resources and supply systems, among other factors such as surface water drainage, flood risk management and opportunities to integrate various aspects of water management.

“It will be used to develop policies in the new joint Local Plan, and also for specific sites such as the North East Cambridge Area Action Plan. To ensure that the study is as robust at exploring these issues as possible, the water resources element of the consultants’ study will also be independently reviewed by a nationally-recognised expert.”

She added: “We take the River Cam for granted, we assume it’ll keep running but last year, without the locks, the River Cam would have been a trickle. If the Cam was obviously at risk perhaps people would sit up, but we really need to do a lot more about water now.”

Red Rebels on the River Cam - because water is our most precious asset and without it life is impossible. Picture: Jeremy Peters
Red Rebels on the River Cam - because water is our most precious asset and without it life is impossible. Picture: Jeremy Peters

Stephen Kelly, director of Greater Cambridge Shared Planning, said: “We know there is genuine concern about what impact new development, combined with the effects of climate change, could have on local water supply.

“We know that in future, we will have to plan for further growth in this area. We have heard loud and clear local concerns about the need to consider how that growth can be managed against a backdrop of pressure on water resources and our precious natural environment. We’ve therefore commissioned research to look at how water is supplied and used across the whole water cycle in Greater Cambridge.

“Depending on what the research shows, we will be better informed about where and how development can responsibly happen, without threatening our natural environment or the water supply and treatment infrastructure.”

At the end of the day, everyone will have to work together to save this region, as Dan Clark concludes, saying: “We believe that water should be used wisely and efficiently at all times, and that this can be designed into dwellings and commercial buildings so that less potable water is used and wasted. Water reuse and recycling at a development scale can help contribute to this, as well as customers being water-wise, and efficiency standards being imposed by planning regulation.

“However, if growth is to continue in this area, and we want to further protect and enhance the water environment, then eventually new water sources will be required – but at the moment our plans do not suggest this is required for at least a decade, unless the growth accelerates rapidly, which is why we revise our long-term plans at least every five years.”

Have we really got a decade to go before the water runs out? Only if consumption is not reined in – and the rainfall doesn’t increase.

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