Reducing Health Risks in Recreational Waters: Insights and Challenges from the Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2024 Report and Ofwat’s Role – CEO Blog June 2024

At the latter part of May 2024, a report on Reducing Public Health Risks from Polluted Recreational Waters, was issued by the Royal Academy of Engineering. It examined strategies to mitigate public health risks associated with the recreational use of open waters contaminated by faecal organisms from human waste in sewage. It presents 15 recommendations aimed at water service providers, the UK government, devolved administrations, and public bodies to address these risks.

The report focuses on wastewater infrastructure and its role in discharging human faecal organisms into open water through storm overflows and treated wastewater. It excludes considerations of pollution from agricultural runoff, wild animals, or septic tanks.

Four broad categories of engineering interventions to reduce public health risks for recreational water users, such as swimmers, anglers, and surfers, were recommended:

  1. Water Management: Interventions in this category aim to reduce the volume of water entering combined sewers. By decreasing the amount of water in the sewers, the number of overflow events can be minimized, reducing exposure to polluted water. Techniques include:
  • Improved Drainage Systems: Enhancing the capacity and efficiency of drainage systems to manage stormwater better.
  • Rainwater Harvesting: Capturing and using rainwater to reduce the burden on sewer systems.
  • Permeable Surfaces: Implementing surfaces that allow water to infiltrate and reduce runoff entering sewers.
  1. Wastewater Treatment: Enhancing the quality of pathogen removal is crucial for reducing the hazards associated with treated effluent or overflows. This can involve:
  • Upgrading Treatment Plants: Implementing advanced filtration and disinfection technologies to ensure higher removal rates of harmful microorganisms.
  • Innovative Treatment Technologies: Adopting new and emerging technologies that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of wastewater treatment processes.
  1. Monitoring and Communicating Risk to the Public: Effective monitoring systems and clear communication strategies are essential for reducing public exposure to polluted water. This includes:
  • Real-time Water Quality Monitoring: Implementing systems that continuously monitor water quality and provide real-time data.
  • Public Advisories and Notifications: Informing the public about water quality conditions and potential risks through advisories and notifications.
  • Educational Campaigns: Raising awareness about the risks of polluted water and safe practices for recreational water use.
  1. Maintenance and Operations: Improving the performance and reliability of wastewater infrastructure is key to reducing the frequency and impact of overflows. This involves:
  • Regular Maintenance: Conducting routine inspections and maintenance of infrastructure to ensure optimal performance.
  • Timely Repairs: Addressing issues promptly to prevent failures and overflows.
  • Operational Enhancements: Implementing best practices and optimizing operations to improve treatment efficiency and system resilience.

Ofwat Price Determinations on Interventions

Given that Ofwat’s price determinations for the next Asset Management Plan (AMP) investment period, is in full flow, how might the determinations support or hinder the recommendations in the above report?

Support

  1. Funding Allocation: If Ofwat allocates sufficient funding for infrastructure upgrades, water companies will have the financial resources necessary to invest in advanced wastewater treatment technologies and improve existing systems, enhancing pathogen removal and reducing overflow incidents.
  2. Incentives for Innovation: Ofwat can promote innovation by offering financial incentives or bonuses for companies that implement cutting-edge technologies or strategies that effectively manage water and wastewater. This could accelerate the adoption of interventions in water management and treatment.
  3. Regulatory Pressure: By setting stringent regulatory standards for water quality and overflow frequency, Ofwat can push water companies to prioritize investments in maintenance, monitoring, and operational improvements. Higher standards can drive the adoption of better practices and technologies.
  4. Performance Metrics: Incorporating performance metrics related to water quality and public health risks into the price determinations can ensure that water companies are held accountable for delivering tangible improvements in these areas. This creates a direct link between funding and outcomes, motivating companies to focus on effective interventions.

Hinder

  1. Insufficient Funding: If the price determinations do not provide adequate financial resources, water companies may struggle to afford necessary upgrades and innovations. Budget constraints could lead to prioritization of immediate operational needs over long-term investments in infrastructure and technology.
  2. Short-term Focus: Emphasizing short-term cost reductions over long-term investments might discourage water companies from undertaking major infrastructure projects or adopting new technologies that require significant upfront costs but offer long-term benefits.
  3. Complex Approval Processes: Stringent regulatory approval processes for funding specific projects might delay the implementation of critical interventions. Simplifying and streamlining these processes can facilitate quicker adoption and deployment of necessary technologies and improvements.
  4. Lack of Flexibility: If Ofwat’s determinations are overly prescriptive or rigid, they might limit water companies’ ability to tailor interventions to local conditions and specific challenges. Flexibility in funding use and regulatory compliance can enable more effective and context-sensitive solutions.

Conclusion

Ofwat’s price determinations will play a crucial role in shaping the capacity of water companies to implement the recommended interventions of the Royals Academy’s report. Adequate funding, incentives for innovation, and a regulatory framework focused on long-term public health outcomes will support these efforts, while insufficient resources and overly rigid regulations could hinder progress.