New reservoirs could help combat droughts, but at what cost?

In an old wood in Hampshire, a county in the south of England, construction workers cut down trees and stumps. Over the workers’ shoulders, ecologists check that no bats or bird’s nests are disturbed. They are building a road that will eventually lead to 160 hectares of grassland where Portsmouth Water, the utility company that manages the water supply here, will build a reservoir.

The reservoir will be located in a clay valley, and thus its water will be naturally isolated from the surrounding forest. Portsmouth Water plans to fill it using nearby springs by 2029. If all goes as planned, the reservoir will then supply up to 21 million liters of water a day to around 160,000 people in the south east of England.

It may seem like a lot, but 160,000 people isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things, especially on an island which, like many parts of the world this year, is experiencing water shortages. The UK has been hit by extreme heat this summer and is facing its worst drought in nearly 50 years. Farmers were banned from drawing water from the river and residents were banned from using hoses to water their gardens, wash their cars or fill swimming pools. With more heat waves and droughts likely in the future, it’s a sign that the UK is going to need more water supplies. And yet this planned reservoir will be the first to be built in the south of England since the 1970s. Building new ones may seem like a simple solution at a time when more water is needed, but the reality is more complicated .

It’s not that water companies in the UK don’t have other projects going on. But it takes about 10 years from the decision to build a new reservoir to the ability to use the water. When originally planned in the late 1960s, the Kielder Water Reservoir in North East England was designed to supply water to the region’s steel and chemical industries. However, when it opened in 1982, so much time had passed that these industries had closed. Considered a white elephant when it opened, thousands of tourists now flock to Northumberland every year to see the UK’s largest man-made lake.

And it can cost hundreds of millions to build: Portsmouth Water’s new reservoir, despite its small size, will cost more than £120 million ($140 million) to build. Two new reservoirs being built by Anglian Water in the east of England are expected to cost £3.3bn ($3.79bn) in total and won’t deliver water until 2035 at best.

“Companies, or even the Environment Agency, are reluctant to allow a new reservoir to be built unless it’s really proven,” says Chris Binnie, an independent consultant who advises government agencies and businesses on the development of water resources in the UK.

Another reason why no reservoirs have been built recently, according to Binnie, is that water use has become more efficient in recent decades due to privatization of the sector. Since the generalization of water meters in households, consumption has decreased considerably. Some British water companies even sold reservoirs to property developers because they could no longer use the water from them.

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