Public debate on water pollutions “oversimplified”

New technologies, increased investment and greater collaboration will help the water industry get to zero pollutions.

The rise of citizen science has placed increasing pressure on water companies to improve their environmental performance and protect river and bathing water quality. The water sector is pressed to improve communicating the challenges of addressing pollution, and why there is an urgent need for better collaboration between utilities, government bodies, regulators and customers.

This was the key message from Philip Dunne MP, chair of the UK Parliament Environmental Audit Committee, during a keynote address at the Zero Pollutions Conference 2021, hosted by Isle.

Speaking to an audience of international water professionals, including utilities, academics, consultancies and suppliers, as well as the Environmental Agency (EA), Dunne said: “The public is becoming increasingly concerned about the environment is general, and especially around the state of beaches and rivers. Those who have responsibility for managing water need to be aware – it is not going to go away. All those who bear responsibilities need to develop robust strategies to try to manage their contribution to these challenges. Collaboration and cooperation will be key. There needs to be a united voice to communicate with the public.”

The conference, hosted by Isle to support the UK water sector as it strives to achieve ambitious pollution targets over the next five years, took place days after Southern Water was fined a record £90 million (US$122.6 million) after pleading guilty to 6,971 unpermitted sewage discharges between 2010-2015.

During a panel discussion – comprising participants from The Rivers Trust, EA and a number of water companies – there was recognition from the EA that while passionate members of the public are more engaged with environmental issues than ever – especially in the aftermath of prosecutions – there is a risk the debate has lost nuance.

Helen Wakeham, deputy director of water quality, groundwater and land contamination, at the EA, commented: “The public debate on water quality and pollutions is at risk of being oversimplified – generally people do not understand how wastewater systems work. It’s complicated, challenging and there are things people can do individually to help. The risk is we become so focused on water company failings that we lose sight of how everyone can make a difference in preventing pollutions.”

With a focus on how data-driven decision-making and smart technologies can help address pollutions, the conference also included presentations from Brian Moloney, managing director of technology company StormHarvester, on how artificial intelligence (AI) and smart systems can move the community towards zero pollutions. Also speaking was Anna Boyles, head of performance, risk and optimization at Thames Water, who explained the company’s intelligence-led approach to pollution reduction.

Other speakers included Richard Martin, pollution and flooding systems architect at Southern Water, who presented on proactive intervention measures and how the company has been using their enhanced signals pumping station to proactively identify deterioration before failure. The benefits of using an event duration monitoring improvement approach were discussed by Erica Brown, head of environmental performance at United Utilities. Anglian’s Melissa Tallack, head of data and digital services, and tactical operations manager Colin Usherwood, gave a rundown of their pollution control centre and mobile reporting app for field staff.

Thanking participants after the event, Isle’s UK managing director Dr Ben Tam, said: “The industry is working hard to tackle this issue and companies like StormHarvester are out there helping to reduce pollutions. Nationally as a sector, we need to engage more with the public – the debate has shifted and evolved.

“There is lots to do, and lots we can do together. With advances in new technologies, increased investment and greater collaboration inside the sector and with third parties, we will get to zero pollutions.”